What’s Behind the American Military Presence in Eastern Syria?

After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, international relations theorists, sociologists and philosophers began searching for the key driver of interactions in international relations after the struggle between communism and liberalism.

Some theorists, including Samuel Huntington, said there was a clash of civilizations between Islam in the East and Christianity in the West. However, the United States undermined that theory by standing alongside Georgia and Turkey, both Muslim nations, against Armenia and Russia, both Christian nations, in a war fought to extend a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to the European Union through Georgia and Turkey. Thereafter, energy resources and geopolitics, i.e., the means of delivering energy, became the most important driver of international relations, especially in the Middle East.

In the case of Syria, the United States entered to fight the Islamic State and establish military bases. Then, when Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring against the Syrian Democratic Forces, President Donald Trump made numerous statements about abandoning the Syrian Democratic Forces, which caused them to open back-channel negotiations with the Syrian regime via Russia to secure a deal that protects them from the rapid Turkish advance. As a result, forces from the Syrian regime entered areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, and now there is a partnership for administering the region until political parameters are agreed upon at a later date.

However, the United States redeployed its forces east of the Euphrates after the Senate put pressure on the Trump administration to secure that region, particularly the oil-producing areas. Though this region is economically and geopolitically significant, why is the area east of the Euphrates important to the United States? Is it the oil? Is it geopolitics?

The Raging War

According to international figures, Syria has approximately 2.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, or 18% of global reserves. Average daily production in Syria before the war approached 405,000 barrels per day. The most important oil fields in Syria are located in the Haska and Deir Ezzor provinces. The al-Swaidia field produces 116,000 barrels per day, the al-Ramilan field produces 90,000 barrels per day, the al-Amr, al-Taim and al-Tanak fields produce 170,000 barrels per day. Global consumption per day, according to the international market, is between 87 million and 90 million barrels, whereas global production per day approaches 87 million barrels. In other words, Syrian oil production has no impact on the international energy market, especially since a significant portion goes toward local consumption. Moreover, it is difficult to move Syrian production outside the country because of the conditions of war.

As a result of the war raging in Syria, some oil production sites and infrastructure have been destroyed, which has led to a major decrease in production. In other words, these wells are not economically viable, and it is unlikely that a country such as the United States is after Syrian oil. It is possible that these wells are valuable to militias such as the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, the United States, as part of its economic sanctions, wants to prevent the Syrian regime from using oil to finance its military operations. I believe the Trump administration said it will remain in Syria to protect oil fields in order to justify its prior decision to withdraw, particularly after pressure from the U.S. government agencies.

Natural Resources

The question remains: What is the importance of the area east of the Euphrates to the United States of America? Great regional powers consider the Middle East a region of conflict and influence because it possesses the most natural resources, particularly energy resources, and controls the most important waterways in the world. Consequently, a battle is raging between the great powers for more influence in the region. The United States is trying to tighten its grip on the Middle East, especially as Russian influence grows in Syria. On the other hand, having consolidated its control over the Syrian coast and inland regions, Russia is endeavoring to dominate all of Syria.

However, Russian influence will not be complete or successful with the presence of American forces east of the Euphrates and in the al-Tanf region along the Syrian border with Jordan and Iraq. The United States will not withdraw from these regions because it would mean Russian and Iranian control of all Syria. Moreover, there is a Russian-backed strategic alliance between Iran, Iraq and Syria that will lead to Russian dominance from the eastern Mediterranean to Iran. If that occurred, it would constitute a strategic threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, especially in the Arab Gulf region.

The American military presence in eastern Syria and the al-Tanf region is strategically and geopolitically important to prevent Russia from gaining complete control over a wide swath of the Middle East, particularly after being concentrated mainly on the Mediterranean coast. The American presence in Syria is geopolitically significant. It is a region situated on the Syrian-Iraqi border, which is considered the pipeline from Iran to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syrian oil is not the goal of the American forces east of the Euphrates.

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