Donald Trump May Be Preparing for A Standoff with Iran Over Syria

Seth J. Frantzman

U.S. policy on Syria has been on a roller coaster ride in October. It’s unclear what will come next because current options vary from withdrawing from part of Syria to leaving all of eastern Syria to increasing troop levels in areas where oil fields are located. President Donald Trump consults only a small team on Syrian issues and U.S. policy remains compartmentalized between the Pentagon and State Department. One thing is clear from the White House, the United States now wants to secure the oil.

The same day that Trump announced that a U.S. raid killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the president also responded to questions about his tweets that indicated the United States would secure oil fields in Syria. He said that the oil was “so valuable for many reasons, it fueled ISIS, it helps the Kurds, and . . . it can help us because we should be able to take some also.” Trump said he might work with an American oil company to develop the infrastructure. For now, the United States is “protecting” the oil. “That doesn’t mean we don’t make a deal at some point,” he said.

The “making a deal” portion of the statement is classic Trump and is the kind of policy that has come to underpin this administration, which tends to view foreign policy as transactional. This includes the U.S. policy on “maximum pressure” on Iran which has eschewed military action in favor of economic sanctions. The Trump administration does not want a war with Iran, despite commentary that portrayed his White House as hawkish. The departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton in September reduced chances of conflict with Iran. It was Bolton, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that ramped up rhetoric in May. But Iran’s alleged attacks on oil tankers, shooting down a U.S. drone, and involvement in an attack on Saudi oil facilities, showed that Tehran had called Washington’s bluff. Bolton’s “unrelenting force” threats have dried up.

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