The U.S. State Department is talking to Russia about Syria’s oil, the top U.S. general in the Middle East said on Wednesday.
U.S. forces are currently helping the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces guard oil fields in northeastern Syria. The Russian-backed central government of Syria accused the United States of oil theft last month, after reports surfaced of a deal for an American company called Delta Crescent to work with Syrian oil.
The SDF has often “attempted to use oil and gas resources as a bargaining chip” in negotiations with the Syrian government, U.S. military intelligence noted in a report released last month.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, shed more light on U.S. plans for the oil fields at a Wednesday video conference hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“If we can find a way, for example, to generate income for the SDF from the oil fields, that income then can be equitably distributed in the long term,” he said. “I think our vision would be that wealth needs to stay there. I think the Russians, on the other hand, want to extract the wealth.”
He added that Amb. James Jeffrey, the State Department official in charge of Syrian affairs, is “engaged with the Russians in talking about this.”
Jeffrey and his deputy Joel Rayburn have also been meeting with Kurdish officials about Delta Crescent’s plans.
Delta Crescent reportedly signed a contract with the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syrian, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate last month that their deal is “in implementation.”
One source claimed that the contract prohibits the northeast Syrian administration from sharing any of the oil revenues with the Syrian central government in Damascus.
Such reports have angered both Damascus and Moscow, with the Russian Embassy in Canada calling the alleged deal “plunder.”
But the Syrian Kurdish authorities have downplayed the reported deal, telling the National Interest that no final deal has been reached and that they are also speaking to Russian companies.
Russia has long been interested in Syrian oil, promising lucrative resource deals to private military contractors in exchange for their help shoring up the government in Damascus.
These contractors unsuccessfully attempted to take Syria’s largest oil field from the SDF in a February 2018 battle that resulted in hundreds of deaths.
U.S. forces have since helped the SDF shore up its defenses at the oil fields by training and funding a specialized oilfield protection force.
Russia has apparently not given up on the oil, and Damascus awarded oil exploration contracts to two Russian companies in December 2019.
The area around oilfields “was increasingly subject to attempts by Russian and Syrian regime patrols to gain more access” over the past few months, according to U.S. military intelligence.
McKenzie said that there is a “closing window” to ensure northeastern Syrians can benefit from oil revenues.
“We expect the regime is going to want to push to the east, because they want control over the same thing, because that's an economic engine,” he said. “I don't know what a long-term solution for that would look like for that.”
Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @matthew_petti.