Rahmi Kopar holds a Ph.D. from the Center for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy, University of Dundee and an LLM from the University of Vienna.
Trump, while announcing the death of DAESH leader Baghdadi on Oct. 27, also remarked that he intended to make a deal with ExxonMobil to exploit Syrian oil, which in effect, suggested his administration is willing to commit a war crime in Syria. This, however, was not openly expressed but what he meant leads to this deduction under international law. In referring to the oil, he said, “we should be able to take some also.”
On Nov. 2, he reiterated these statements and said, “We are keeping the oil. I like oil” and on the same day, footage of U.S. troops surrounding oil fields in Syria with combat tanks was released.
This is not the first time that Trump has spoken of taking a foreign country’s oil. In 2016, while he was running for president, he advocated for seizing Iraqi oil in reimbursement for what the U.S. had spent there during the war. It seems that Trump’s mindset has not changed since then. It was Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a key Trump defender, who seconded Trump's decision when he stated: "This doesn't violate any law, in my view".
Luckily, international law does not depend on Graham's personal and uninformed opinion or wishes. It is well established under international law that such an act would constitute pillage, effectively a war crime.
‘Pillage’ (or plunder) is the term used to define theft during armed conflicts and is considered a war crime under numerous international laws. The prohibition of pillage is a well-acknowledged customary international law rule that all states must adhere to. The Hague Regulations of 1907, the Statute of the International Criminal Court, the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Statute of the International Tribunal for Rwanda, and the Statute of the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are some of these international law documents under which pillaging is explicitly prohibited and considered a war crime. Stealing natural resources from another country would fall under the exact scope of this crime.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, oil production in Syria is currently around 28,000 barrels per day (bpd) compared to around 400,000 bpd before the start of the civil war in 2011. Today output is of a negligible amount, nearly half of what Turkey produces daily but there is potential to scale it up to pre-war figures. This prospect is what it seems Trump is striving for, but regardless of the volume of oil produced, the U.S., a country that sits 7,000 miles away from Syria, has no legal right of any kind to Syria’s oil.
If, as some suggest, that there is a risk that the oil would end up in the hands of terrorists hence the need for protection, the only way to ensure that oil revenues are channeled to the Syrian people would be if Turkey takes the issue into its own hands to protect the oil fields. Turkey should have the primary standing on this matter for two key reasons: firstly, around 4 million Syrians currently live in Turkey, some of whom originally came from areas where the oil fields are located. Since there is a lack of a sound and healthy central government in Syria, Turkey must protect the interests of these locals. This is only possible if local Syrians return to their lands after terrorists are cleared from these areas so they can help reconstruct their communities with help from receiving a proportion of this oil revenue.
The second reason that Turkey should resolve this issue and not the U.S. is because of the U.S. alliance with the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union. The YPG has been active around these oil fields. Some U.S. officials point out that they will not have a share of Syrian oil, and indicate that oil revenues will be redirected to the YPG, a potential move that should be considered an urgent threat to Turkey’s national security.
After repairing the oil infrastructure, production can be increased to pre-war levels and this might provide a huge source of income to the YPG that sits just across Turkey’s borders.
If the U.S. aspires to take the oil, it would be seen as pillage and illegal under international law. If rather, the U.S. directs oil revenue to the YPG, it would motivate Turkey to use all means necessary to hinder such a move. In both circumstances, the only legitimate and rational solution seems to be in allowing Turkey to protect these oil fields and prevent any illegal intervention.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.