ANALYSIS - Trump's Idea Of Oil Exploration In Syria Legally Questionable, Mostly Aimed At Electorate

MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 29th October, 2019) The intention of the United States to keep troops in northeast Syria in order to protect oil fields and invite US companies to explore it "properly," as announced by President Donald Trump last week, is barely more than bait for the electorate and is most likely an illegal endeavor, experts told Sputnik.

On Sunday, Trump held a press conference to announce the elimination of Islamic State (IS, terrorist organization, banned in Russia) leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi in a special operation by US troops in Syria. During the conference, he also revealed the intention to keep part of the troops in place for the protection of oil and further invite large US oil companies to the area to explore its oil fields.

"The oil is so valuable for many reasons. It fueled ISIS, number one. Number two, it helps the Kurds. It has basically been taken away from the Kurds, they were able to live with that oil. And number three, it can help us, because we should be able to take some also. And what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly - right now it's not big; it's big oil underground, but it's not big oil up top, and much of the machinery has been shot and dead, it's been through wars - and spread out the wealth," Trump said.

Interestingly, this was not the first time that Trump voiced this idea. Back in 2015, he said virtually the same thing using almost the same words in an interview with Fox news.

"Take back the oil. Once you go over and take back that oil, they have nothing. You have to go in. You bomb the hell out of them and then you encircle it and then you go in. And you let Mobil go in and you let our great oil companies go in," Trump said, when asked about how he intended to defeat the IS.

The difference on Sunday was that it was pronounced by the president of the United States speaking in his official capacity.

Aside from being an apparent strategy for the reputation rehabilitation after several humiliating drawbacks on the Syrian front, the plan is also of questionable legitimacy, experts told Sputnik.

"Oil and gas resources as almost certain rule, with very few exceptions like in the US and Canada, belong to the state where they are located. In principle, the company interested to explore oil and gas if it's in Syria or if it's in Iraq or if it's in Turkey - they should follow the Syrian laws, the Iraqi laws and Turkish laws, respectively, and the legal system in order to receive permission typically from the relevant government authority to acquire the legal right because otherwise you might be facing a lot of different legal challenges," Dr. Eduardo G. Pereira, a professor of Natural Resources and Energy Law, founding partner at the International Energy Law Training and Research Company as well as at the International Energy Law Advisory Group, told Sputnik.

One might say that Trump could be referring to the oil fields in question as to a property of the Kurds, but then again the stateless Kurds as an entity are not subject to international law in its conventional reading, the expert explained.

"If you believe that this area belongs to the Syrian Kurds or even the Kurdistan in Iraq, the question is how the legal system recognizes them - because currently the Kurds don't have the nation itself, it is not a fully-recognized country," Pereira said.

Investing in an area that is disputed or does not provide a clear legal ground for the exploration of resources is a major risk that large companies are unlikely to want to take, the expert continued.

"Typically, companies prefer to avoid investing in the area which has no clear ownership of resources - is it the current government, is the Kurds that might want to be independent or not ... If companies want to do business [in a given country], they need to follow their regulations. If they decide to do something differently, they may be facing legal challenges from international law, from local law and risks. There might be a regime change, but until it happens it is not clear from the legal point of view or at least disputed from the legal point of view if they are able to do that," Pereira said.

According to the expert, when one speaks about a state rather than a business seeking to explore oil within the territory of another country, simply green-lighting companies to go do it is not an option within the existing legal frameworks.

"If you, for example, don't recognize the current regime ... then you as a foreign country can take measures like pouring sanctions, but you don't have the legal rights to give permission to do business in a foreign country. Who has the right to do it is the given government in that country," Pereira said.


The claim that the US troops remain in Syria to protect the oil from terrorists is of questionable credibility since the level of threat posed by IS to oil fields is minimal, Abdulaziz Alghashian, a middle East expert and PhD researcher of international relations and the politics of the Middle East at Essex University, told Sputnik.

"I think the mobilization of the US forces there, in Syria, is not really just to protect the oil facilities. And it is not, perhaps, to gain oil. Because this is another aspect that many people find confusing. People do not just go there to get oil. I think this is part of a diplomatic maneuver ... The backlash that the United States received after they pulled out and kind of allowed Turkey attack the Kurdish forces there - I think it's the main motivation, as opposed to gaining oil per se," Alghashian said.

Trump's move is intended rather for the domestic US audience, given he suffered a couple of harsh drawbacks following the initial withdrawal of US troops from the area where Turkey launched a military offensive earlier this month, which many interpreted as Washington's deception of the Kurds, as well as Russia and Turkey concluding a landmark memorandum on settling the situation in north Syria. With the 2020 presidential election close at hand and ongoing developments around the possible impeachment, Trump is in need of a major boost to his administration's prestige.

"It was rhetoric to a certain audience ... He is speaking to his domestic audience - 'Listen, what I am doing abroad is to help you.' I don't see as anything more. I think he is just saying this to his domestic audience, to make sure that he still has his support, that this support is still strong especially before the election season starts. This is a domestic issue rather than a foreign policy issue. And I'm not surprised if none of these things materialize. If anything, I don't think it will even materialize. But that's the nature of Donald Trump, the nature of his rhetoric and foreign policy towards the Middle East," Alghashian concluded.

Whether or not Trump proceeds with his intention to bring the oil companies into play, the fact remains in place that Washington has sanctioned the supply of petroleum products to Syria, a measure that applies not only to foreign companies but also those of the US itself.