Donald Trump’s plan in Syria is simple: Commit war crimes. Last October, the president unilaterally withdrew most American troops from their positions in Syria. He was convinced to leave only a few soldiers behind by the defense establishment, which prevailed on Trump by telling him the troops were necessary to protect the region’s oil fields for future American exploitation. “We’re keeping the oil,” Trump has said repeatedly.
That likely counts as “pillaging,” a crime of war under the United States-ratified Geneva Conventions. “It’s very hard to see how that’s not a war crime,” Carl Bruch, a senior lawyer at the Environmental Law Institute, told The New Republic.
Trump’s advisors aren’t trying to ship the oil directly to the U.S., as the president clumsily suggested. Instead, they’ve settled on ensuring exclusive profits from Syrian energy production for a shadowy American shell company.
This, along with Syria’s ongoing civil war, means the legal question of whether Americans are engaged in illegal pillaging is more complex, said Bruch: It hinges in part on whether the Syrian State or the Syrian people have actual ownership of oil under Syrian law. While the U.S. is occupying Syrian oil fields, the broader territory is controlled by the Syrian Kurdish rebel groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad, the genocidal dictator in Damascus. The rebels are eager to sell this oil to support their fledgling breakaway region.
Regardless of potential violations of international law, Trump’s plan is moving ahead. With the backing of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Delta Crescent Energy, a Delaware-based company, has obtained the exclusive right to exploit Syrian oil fields. On July 30, Al-Monitor confirmed that Delta Crescent had secured a 25-year agreement with the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria, which controls most of the country’s oil wealth, to develop and market oil fields in areas under its control.
Neither the State Department nor the White House responded to requests for comment but this concession was brokered at the State Department’s highest levels, a government source with knowledge of the deal told The New Republic. Pompeo appeared to acknowledge this while speaking to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham during a Senate hearing on July 30. “The deal took a little longer, Senator, than we had hoped, and now we’re in implementation,” Pompeo said.
Whether or not the President’s cronies end up being tried in The Hague for pilfering overseas petroleum, the Delta Crescent contract is more of the dipshit diplomacy that has become normal under Trump’s leadership. The U.S. government risks inflaming regional tensions and enabling potential corruption, all to goose a politically connected domestic company’s profits. “We’re really driving home the idea that we just want to steal resources from this part of the world,” said Ben Friedman, policy director of Defense Priorities, a libertarian think tank.
The deal’s specifics make this much clear: Syria’s Kurds didn’t have any real choice in partners. Companies involved in the Syrian oil business risk punishing sanctions that would cut them off from the U.S. financial system. To avoid sanctions, companies need a sanctions waiver from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Four companies applied for one but only Delta Crescent received a waiver. (The Government Accountability Project, where I work, has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for a copy of this waiver as well as Delta Crescent’s application to the government for it.)
Little is known about Delta Crescent, whose acknowledged ownership so far includes the following: James Cain, a Republican donor, Bush-era ambassador to Denmark, and former president of the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team; John Dorrier, an oil executive with ties to Syrian regime financiers, who has made recent campaign contributions to Trump as well as to Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham; and James Reese, a former Army Special Forces officer and Fox News contributor who founded TigerSwan, a security contractor company with a history of civil rights violations. None of the three responded to requests for comment.
But beyond Pompeo, the company has friends in high places—both in Washington and in Iraqi Kurdistan, which borders Syria. Photos show Delta Crescent officials meeting a variety of powerful members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, including the region’s president, Nechirvan Barzani, and his chief of staff, Fawzi Hariri. Jim Jeffrey, the United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement and his deputy Joel Rayburn have also been meeting with Barzani about Delta Crescent’s plans.
The U.S. company needs the notoriously corrupt Barzani family’s buy-in for the plan to work. Delta Crescent wanted to use a pipeline connecting Kirkuk, Iraq, to Turkey in order to export the Syrian oil, according to the government source. They “wanted to batch it with Iraqi Kurdish oil,” concealing its point of origin, said the source, “because they are slimy underhanded people.”
Multiple Iraqi analysts dismissed that plan as unlikely to succeed, with one telling The New Republic that it was “dumbass.” Syrian crude oil was of poor quality, and smuggling it could damage the Iraqi Kurdish government’s relationship with oil traders. “If you are the [Kurdistan Regional Government], why fuck it up?” said one analyst, who requested to speak on background for safety reasons.
Instead, sources suggested it’s more likely that Barzani companies will buy the fuel from Delta Crescent, potentially to process it at Iraqi Kurdistan’s Lanaz refinery where Syrian fuel has already been shipped. The refinery is controlled by Mansour Barzani, the region’s special forces chief, who is the brother of the Kurdish prime minister and the cousin of regional president Nechirvan Barzani.* Photos show Delta Crescent meeting with other Barzani-connected politicians as well as with potential middleman companies connected to their families.
Beyond engaging corrupt actors to promote a private business, this U.S. policy is already causing a diplomatic mess. Assad’s Damascus government, along with its Russian and Iranian patrons, is already screaming bloody murder over the alleged oil theft; but even if one ignores the accusations of a genocidal dictator like Assad, the American oil deal could also cause issues with Turkey and Iraq.
The pipeline that Delta Crescent wants to use is the joint property of the Turkish and Iraqi government, and Baghdad alleges that the Iraqi Kurdish regional government is using the pipeline without the necessary permissions and revenue-sharing commitments. Iraq’s government has filed a case in an international arbitration court to reclaim the pipeline and is unlikely to be pleased with the State Department’s role in its use.
The situation with Turkey is even worse. The Turkish government believes the Syrian-Kurdish fighters are associated with a separatist group, the PKK, that it considers terrorists. “With this step, the PKK/YPG terror group has revealed its intention to advance its separatist agenda by seizing the Syrian people’s natural resources,” a Turkish government statement said about the Delta Crescent deal.
Delta Crescent’s Reese outlined his plan to solve these problems to a Washington Examiner columnist last October: Get the U.S. government to help his company, the same way it helped him get the contract in the first place. “If Turkey doesn’t want to support this plan, the U.S. can do it anyway and/or sanction the Turkish economy,” that columnist Tom Rogan wrote of Reese’s plan.
Delta Crescent’s defenders and State Department officials may argue that the oil deal is about supporting Syrian rebels and cutting Damascus off from fuel; they make nitpicky arguments about how this isn’t technically a war crime. But fundamentally, it’s about using American hard power to take Syria’s oil. Reese has even said it himself in April 2018 during a Fox News segment on “the right approach” for the U.S. in Syria.
“We own the whole eastern part of Syria. If you take a line from Kobane and run it down the Euphrates River, all the way back [to] Iraq? That’s ours,” he said, a miniature Purple Heart shining on his jacket lapel. “We can’t give that up.”
* A previous version of this article misstated Mansour Barzani’s title.