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After the killing of Baghdadi, what’s America’s role in Syria?

Just days before the raid in which Baghdadi died, Trump announced that the new U.S. mission would be to secure Syria’s oil. He reiterated that on Sunday. In what world does that make sense?

photo of military trucks in syria
Just days before the raid in which Baghdadi died, Trump announced that the new U.S. mission would be to secure Syria’s oil. He reiterated that on Sunday. In what world does that make sense?

Credit where credit is due. The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced by President Donald Trump on Sunday, doesn’t mean the end of the Islamic State, but it will knock the organization back on its heels — at least for a while. 

Few will mourn the demise of a terror leader who oversaw beheadings and genocide, and inspired attacks that killed thousands of people. The U.S. commando assault in which Baghdadi died seems to have been a textbook operation resulting from long, careful intelligence gathering and cooperation – active or passive – by several countries. 

Baghdadi, like all such leaders, will be replaced and his movement will continue in some form. While his death might spur some militants to seek revenge against the United States, on balance it’s likely to make the Islamic State – which many experts said had been quietly rebuilding — less of an inspiration to lone individuals who might be tempted to launch terror attacks in Europe or North America. 

Trump’s graceless, gloating performance announcing Baghdadi’s death aside, so far, so good.

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But exactly what does this operation mean for U.S. policy in Syria, particularly after the stomach-churning twists and turns of recent weeks? What now?

The months-long operation against Baghdadi was a result of arrangements that were in place before Trump announced that he was pulling the small U.S. force out of Syria. Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly provided intelligence from assets across northern Syria. As early as March, the Kurds said Baghdadi was hiding in northwest Syria, on the opposite side of the country from the Islamic State’s strongholds to the east. They were right; that’s where he was tracked down. 

The New York Times quoted officials as saying Trump’s decision forced the military to go ahead with the plan before they were completely ready, and that the plan succeeded “largely in spite of Mr. Trump’s actions.”

When Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal, he abandoned the Kurds who had done the bulk of the fighting against the Islamic State, leaving them to face a vastly superior Turkish invasion of northeast Syria on their own. Samantha Power, President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to the United Nations, has accused him of encouraging ethnic cleansing. He is also strengthening the hand of Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad – and especially Vladimir Putin.

He cast his decision in terms of making good on a promise to get the U.S. out of the Middle East — except that really wasn’t true. At the same time, he was sending more troops to Saudi Arabia. It was plausible to think that it was all – or mostly – about oil, of which Saudi Arabia has much and Syria has relatively little. 

Just days before the raid in which Baghdadi died, however, Trump announced that the new U.S. mission would be to secure Syria’s oil. He reiterated that on Sunday. In what world does that make sense?

The White House’s state rationale for redeploying around the oil fields has been to prevent the Islamic State from regaining control. It’s true that the Islamic State made a lot of money ($40 million a month in 2015, according to a Treasury Department estimate) pumping oil in Syria and selling it on the black market before it lost the oil fields a couple years ago. 

However, things were going well enough before Trump decided to pull out – and losing its leader will make it all the more difficult for the Islamic State to make a new play for the oil fields. And if Trump truly wants to let people in the Middle East sort out their own problems, there are plenty of others who would be more than happy to ensure the oil stays out of the hands of the Islamic State. 

Even if your goal is nothing more than the cynical pursuit of national self-interest – and you define self-interest in terms of oil — why would you bother protecting the petroleum assets of a country whose reserves don’t even rank in the world’s top 30? Syria’s oil production already was falling before civil war started ripping it apart in 2011, and it didn’t produce enough natural gas for its own domestic consumption.

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For this mission, the U.S. military wouldn’t be using special forces, which require a minimum of logistics support. The Pentagon is reportedly developing plans to insert armored units including tanks – which it will then have to figure out how to supply in hostile territory.

These are the same oil fields where a pro-Syrian government force including Russian mercenaries attacked a small contingent of U.S. troops last February. U.S. air strikes inflicted huge losses. The oil and gas fields may not be a huge deal in the global market, but they’re vital to Assad. He’s unlikely to attack U.S. armored units directly, but he’s equally unlikely to let them sit there unchallenged. Nor are the Iranians and Russians.

Think about the scenario for this force offered up by Aaron Stein of the conservative Foreign Policy Research Institute: “You would have to protect it from the air. You have to supply it and then you have got to protect the road, presumably from Iraq. You can easily see a scenario where we end up with more troops in Syria than we started off with.”

In the Trump era, that’s apparently how you disengage.