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The Dirty Underwear That Saved Syrian Oil From ISIS

Michael Kern

When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by U.S. military forces last week, ostensibly removing a key threat to Syrian oil, it was dirty underwear that ended up being his undoing.

A spy working for Syrian Kurdish forces slipped into a key ISIS camp and stole Al-Baghdadi’s underwear. The DNA from that pair of underwear enabled the US military to track him to his location and eliminate him.   

Military operations to take out radical Islamists have often been plagued by the inability to properly identify the targets, and in this case, a DNA test - thanks to underwear - was there to confirm this was Al-Baghdadi. 

As far as intelligence cooperation goes, the US is lucky that the Syrian Kurds played along at all, after having been betrayed by Washington in a sudden pull-back that allowed the Turks to pour across the border and push the Kurds out and into the arms of Assad. 

But keeping oil out of the hands of ISIS has been an important pressure point following Trump’s controversial exit of Syria. 

Al-Baghdadi’s underwear may have temporarily removed the threat, but another will pop up in its place. This is how ISIS works. Its head cannot be cut off so easily. The only way to defeat it is to target its funding operations because it largely operates on par with organized crime. 

It’s a snake with many heads, and the root causes of how it managed to expand into a high-level threat are many and varied, and largely socio-economic. 

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The bulk of Syria’s oil lies in the north, where the Kurds had been in control, supported by the U.S. With the Kurds out of the game, that oil belongs to Assad, who is desperate both for the oil itself and for the construction money it could bring. 

Trump needed to spin this sudden betrayal and exit as a victory for the American people, and that’s where the killing of Al-Baghdadi came into play. But in the meantime, pressure has also been mounting to do something about the fact that the only clear winners here are Assad, the Syrian regime, the Russians and the Iranians - all US enemies. 

And those US enemies were just giving the golden ticket to Syria’s oil. 

That’s another problem for Trump, who has moved to resolve it by pledging to send return military personnel from Iraq to guard Syrian oil. 

But he’s taking it one step further by suggesting a deal with a supergiant such as Exxon Mobil or Chevron to develop these Syrian fields. 

Exxon and Chevron have not commented, and one can only assume that this is more reality TV or Twitter bluster meant for the masses and not for the real world. 

"What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an Exxon Mobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly," Trump told reporters.

Not only have Exxon and Chevron not bothered to respond, but they aren’t likely to. 

It’s not worth their time.

"We are leaving soldiers to secure the oil," Trump said. "And we may have to fight for the oil. It's OK. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight. But there's massive amounts of oil."

The oil isn’t, after all, “massive”. 

It’s a boon for Assad, but it’s nothing to attract the attention of an American supergiant. 

True, part of the reason that Syria produces so little is the civil war, which has shaved production down by more than 90 percent since the Syrian regime lost control of the key oilfields in 2012

But even before that, it was nothing to entice the likes of Exxon.

In 2010, Syria produced around 400,000 bpd of crude and other petroleum liquids. Exxon extracts that much for lunch.  

Aside from the potential offshore bonanza in Syria’s portion of the prolific Levant Basin, the only real lure of Syrian oil isn’t the oil at all, it’s the idea of an Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline that could deliver to Europe. That’s arguably what the entire war was about, and it’s a major fact that eludes Trump. 

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There’s another sticking point as well, and it’s called national sovereignty. 

If you pull out of a country, then you’re not technically at war with it, so you can’t just take the oil. And that oil has already been contracted to the Russians for development and extraction - onshore and offshore.

So, here we are, and a pair of underwear isn’t going to change anything. 

The oil was Assad’s the minute the US stepped aside and quit Syria. ‘Take backs’ aren’t going to be easy, or likely even feasible. ‘Take backs’ would now mean an actual war against the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran. 

Trump’s whole point was ostensibly to let the Middle East sort itself out and to extract America from a war it should never have been in. When that didn’t go down well, the point changed to “protecting”, and then developing, Syrian oil. But that means an even bigger war - not just pockets of fighting, ambushes and potshots.  

By Michael Kern of Oilprice.com

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