President Trump has executed a policy U-turn on Syria. He's now tasking U.S. forces that he'd promised to withdraw from there with a new mission: securing the oil fields of southeastern Syria.
And it's raising questions about just what he intends to do with that oil.
Trump has appeared fixated on Syria's largely defunct oil fields in the weeks since his Oct. 9 tweet announcing he'd moved U.S. forces out of northern Syria and was bringing the troops deployed to that nation home.
"We're keeping the oil — remember that," Trump declared on Monday at a gathering of police chiefs in Chicago. "We want to keep the oil. Forty-five million dollars a month? Keep the oil. We've secured the oil."
Trump was referring to oil fields in Syria's Deir el-Zour province that Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces wrested from Islamic State insurgents in 2017. The area holds nearly three-quarters of Syria's oil and gas reserves, whose production has plummeted over the past decade by more than 90%. Islamic State fighters had earlier generated substantial revenues from other oil fields farther north through smuggling operations into neighboring Turkey.
On Sunday, Trump again brought up Syria's oil fields moments after announcing the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
"It can help us, because we should be able to take some also," Trump said of Syria's oil while taking reporters' questions at the White House. "And what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an Exxon Mobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly."
Standing by to second Trump's pitch for exploiting Syria's war-blasted oil fields was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
"This doesn't violate any law, in my view," Graham declared following Trump's remarks. "This is a win-win: The SDF will get more money if we can modernize the oil fields. We're not going over there to enrich America — we're over there to help our allies, deny our enemy resources that will allow them to get stronger over time and finally — and this is OK — to lower the cost to us."
Defraying the cost of U.S. operations in Syria by selling that country's oil — which happens to be state-owned property — strikes one expert on the spoils of war as highly dubious.
"[Trump] makes no mention of who owns the oil, and that seems like a fairly key question," says James Graham Stewart, a law professor at the University of British Columbia. "The second question is what exactly is Trump planning to do with the oil."
It makes quite a difference, Stewart adds, whether the U.S. is securing Syria's oil and protecting it for its true owners or taking it without the owners' consent.
"One would probably be more acceptable," he tells NPR. "The other would be a war crime."
Stewart cites numerous international agreements binding the U.S., including the Fourth Geneva Convention, that define the taking of goods during wartime without the owner's permission as pillaging — a war crime.
And he points to a chilling precedent. "One defendant at Nuremberg called Walther Funk, who was the chairperson of the Continental Oil Company, was convicted of pillaging oil from throughout occupied Europe," says Stewart, "precisely because the German army expropriated it for the purposes of the Nazi apparatus."
The top U.S. military officer confirmed on Monday that an unspecified number of American troops and "mechanized forces" (tanks or Bradley Fighting Vehicles) are being redeployed to the desert oil fields of Deir el-Zour. But he said nothing about seizing that oil.
"The fundamental purpose of securing those oil fields," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, told reporters at the Defense Department on Monday, "is to deny those oil fields access to ISIS in order to prevent ISIS from resurgence, because we are still committed to the counter-ISIS campaign. And we don't want them to resurge — they get a lot of their revenues from that."
There was an unsuccessful attempt last year to grab some of the oil-rich lands of eastern Syria. But it was Russian mercenaries allied with Syrian government forces, not ISIS, who were involved in that attack. Under the Obama administration, when the oil fields were still under Islamic State control, the U.S. carried out airstrikes to destroy oil-processing facilities.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked at Monday's Pentagon briefing whether the new U.S. military mission in Syria includes protecting those oil fields from either the Russians, who are now the dominant military force in Syria, or Syria's own government forces.
"The short answer is, yes, it presently does," Esper replied. "Because in that case, we want to make sure that SDF does have access to the resources — in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat-ISIS mission."
It remains unclear where that "defeat-ISIS mission" currently stands. Trump claimed this month that the U.S. has defeated ISIS and taken over 100% of its caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has justified its incursion into Syria by citing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which targets al-Qaida and its supporters.
"You have to have a consensus on the legal basis of what you're doing," says Brett McGurk, who quit late last year as Trump's special envoy for the coalition fighting the Islamic State. "And the only legal basis, the only legal reason we're there, is ISIS," McGurk told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell this week. "I know this issue fairly well — it'll be very difficult legally to exploit those resources, so I'm not quite sure what the president has in mind, but it doesn't seem to make a great deal of sense."
One expert on the law of armed conflict explains that guarding oil facilities can be a valid military aim. "Although it's still controversial among some academics and others," wrote Duke University law professor and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap in an email, "denying a terrorist group access to economic resources that make an effective contribution to their ability to sustain hostile operations is a proper military objective."
"As to who is entitled to the revenue that may flow from working oil fields protected by the U.S. or other partners," Dunlap adds, "that's especially complicated in the case of a conflict against non-state terrorists."
The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has neither invited nor authorized U.S. forces to operate in its territory, an omission that law professor Stewart finds striking. "It's not as if natural resources are just the property of no one, that any armed group can just waltz into a country and decide that it's going to expropriate natural resources in the area," he says.
The U.S. has not declared war on the Assad regime, but University of Oklahoma Middle East scholar Joshua Landis told NPR that the occupation of the Deir el-Zour oil fields by U.S. forces is really all about keeping the government that owns that oil from having it. "The main reason for America to retain that oil is to deny it to Assad," Landis says. "This is not about ISIS — this is about greater policy in Syria, to hurt the Assad regime and to gain and retain leverage on the part of America."
If that's the case, the Trump administration could possibly be getting involved in a wider war, all in the name of protecting a sizable patch of Middle Eastern oil.
A previous version of this story said Charles Dunlap defended President Trump's decision to guard Syria's oil fields and possibly exploit them. Dunlap says guarding oil facilities can be a valid military aim. He made no mention of Trump in his remarks to NPR.