On April 9, China’s state-run English-language newspaper China Daily published a cartoon video depicting U.S. soldiers as stealing oil in Syria.
The cartoon included a depiction of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and used the audio of part of a comment she made two years ago: “For years and generations, wars have been fought over oil.” However, the cartoon cut the rest of Harris’ sentence — “in a short matter of time, they will be fought over water.”
Harris made those comments in Oakland, California in April 2021, while promoting the Biden administration's American Jobs Plan and the need to rebuild the country's water delivery infrastructure.
The 28-second video, which was also posted on China Daily’s Twitter account, was captioned:
“Stealing Syrian oil exposes US as a gangster. Such banditry is aggravating the energy crisis and humanitarian disaster in Syria.”
For months, Chinese state media have been accusing the United States of “stealing,” “looting” and “plundering” Syrian oil, echoing the Russian, Iranian and Syrian governments.
Those claims are false.
To be sure, in November 2019, then President Donald Trump confused matters when he said U.S. troops were in Syria solely to protect oil fields in the northeastern part of the country. “We’re keeping the oil, we have the oil, the oil is secure, we left troops behind only for the oil,” Trump told reporters during a White House meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The U.S., however, did not “keep the oil,” and in May 2021, the administration of President Joe Biden discontinued a waiver that had allowed a politically-connected U.S. oil company to operate in northeastern Syria.
Roughly 900 U.S. troops and hundreds more contractors remain in Syria to combat, alongside Kurdish fighters, the remnants of the Islamic State terrorist group (IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL).
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to the Kurdish-controlled territory in northeastern Syria last month to assess the nearly eight-year-old U.S. military mission in the country. He confirmed that U.S. troops are still needed there to prevent an ISIS revival.
The U.S. military launched its campaign in Syria in 2014, shortly after ISIS made rapid territorial gains in Syria and Iraq and declared the Syrian city of Raqqa as the capital of its so-called caliphate.
After the Syrian Civil War broke out in March 2011, terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda flooded into the region to take advantage of the chaos. (Read our fact-check about the war.) That raised concerns Syria could turn into a terrorist breeding ground.
The U.S. counterterrorism campaign in Syria included airstrikes and arming, training and advising Kurdish-led fighters, who became known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to fight ISIS.
Before its defeat, ISIS built hundreds of makeshift oil refineries in northeastern Syria, where the country’s largest oil fields are located. Oil sales became the terrorist group’s main revenue source, earning it some $500 million in 2016, according to Reuters.
Those oil fields also became the SDF’s revenue stream after the rebel group took control of the region in 2017 with the help of the U.S.-led coalition.
In October 2019, months after ISIS’s final defeat in March 2019, then-president Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. The decision elicited bipartisan concerns in Washington that the U.S. withdrawal would lead to an ISIS resurgence and cede control of the SDF-held region to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and Russia.
The Trump administration soon decided to deploy several hundred troops to Syria to guard the oil fields under the SDF’s control and “deny ISIS access to oil revenue,” as then U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper put it.
The Assad regime called the deployment a U.S. plot to “steal Syria’s crude oil.”
American companies and individuals had been prohibited by the U.S. Treasury Department from operating in Syria due to sanctions aimed at punishing the Assad regime for its atrocities against civilians.
But in 2020, Delta Crescent Energy, a U.S. firm, was granted a one-year waiver to develop and modernize oil fields in areas of Syria under the SDF’s control.
“For every barrel the company helped export outside Syria, it would receive $1, according to the production-sharing agreement and the company’s application to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control,” the Daily Beast reported in 2021.
The firm’s partners included former U.S. ambassador to Denmark James Cain, retired U.S. special forces officer James Reese and former oil executive John Dorrier, “at least two of whom donated to Republican party candidates,” the news site reported.
Esquire magazine reported in November 2022:
“The plan was one for profit, yes, but there was also the higher purpose of humanitarian aid. Dorrier would later say, in a statement to the Associated Press in 2021, that he was involved in the project to prevent the region from falling under the control of autocratic regimes—Syria and its allies Iran and Russia. (In a statement to Esquire, Dorrier reiterated that sentiment, saying that he and Reese ‘remain committed to helping the people of northeast Syria.’)”
Gen. Joseph Votel, former leader of the U.S. Central Command, however, told The New York Times that the U.S. “looked at the oil fields in the context of their strategic value,” adding that they would be a good bargaining chip for future peace negotiations between Damascus and the SDF.
“There weren’t concerns that ISIS would get back in there and be pumping oil,” Votel told the Times. “The oil fields were important, but we didn’t go there for the oil.”
The Delta venture was shut down after the Biden administration refused to renew the waiver in 2021.
In February 2021, then Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the U.S. troops in Syria were there to fight ISIS and were “not authorized to provide assistance to any other private company, including its employees or agents, seeking to develop oil resources in Syria.”