Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

It is clear that Donald Trump made an impulsive decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria following a telephone call with Turkish President Erdogan. The move was said to blindside national security leaders and soldiers were sickened by the decision to abandon our Kurdish allies.

But just as foreign leaders have learned how to manipulate the president, it seems that the Pentagon has figured out how to do so as well. They know that Trump doesn’t care about the Kurds or this country’s relationships with our allies. They do, however, seem to have figured out what does matter to the president. This is what the Washington Post reported last week.

President Trump was persuaded to leave at least several hundred troops behind in Syria only when he was told that his decision to pull them out would risk control of oil fields in the country’s east, according to U.S. officials…

A U.S. official with knowledge of operations in Syria said that Trump’s interest in the oil provided an opportunity for the Pentagon, which was unhappy with the initial decision, to temper his insistence on a full withdrawal and allow counterterrorism operations and airspace control to continue.

“This is like feeding a baby its medicine in yogurt or applesauce,” said the official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal U.S. deliberations.

Almost immediately, the medicine had its desired effect.

Julian Borger and Dan Sabbagh report on what that means.

Analysts said the US decision to take control of the oilfields would require a further partition of the country. “It would mean walling off eastern Syria as a US zone,” said Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington. “You can easily see a scenario where we end up with more troops in Syria than we started off with.”

Instead of having troops in Syria to work with the Kurds to defeat ISIS, they will be there to partition the country in order to protect the oil. So the Pentagon got what they wanted, with troops staying in Syria. But almost immediately, the president started talking about using them to commit a war crime.

It started when Trump tweeted that what the U.S. got from our military involvement in Syria is the oil. Then, during his speech about the killing of Al-Baghdadi, he said that the oil is valuable because “we should be able to take some.” The president went on to say that he intends to make a deal with “ExxonMobile or one of our great companies to go in there…and spread out the wealth.”

You might remember that this is something Trump said the U.S. should have done in Iraq – take their oil. At the time, Sarah Saadoun explained that it would have been a violation of international law.

Pillage has generally been defined as the unlawful appropriation of public or private property in connection with an armed conflict. During a military occupation such as in Iraq, international humanitarian law only permits an occupying army to use the natural resources of the territory for the needs of the occupying army or for the benefit the local population. Neither of these exceptions would apply to the kind of economic exploitation Trump is advocating, which is contrary to positions long held by the US government and reflected in a US State Department memorandum in 1977.

Taking Iraq’s oil would also most likely be a crime under US law. The 1996 US War Crimes Act makes it a criminal offense to commit a grave violation of the Geneva Conventions or to violate specific articles of The Hague Regulations, including the prohibition on pillage. Violations of the War Crimes Act can result in a sentence of life in prison.

During an interview with David Muir in 2017, Trump reiterated that the U.S. should have taken Iraq’s oil, leading to this exchange.

DAVID MUIR: You’ve heard the critics who say that would break all international law, taking the oil…

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Wait, wait, can you believe that? Who are the critics who say that? Fools…I don’t call them critics. I call them fools.

In other words, the president thinks that it is foolish to enforce U.S. and international law.

Trump seems to have abandoned the quest to get his hands on Iraqi oil, but thanks to the “medicine” fed to him by the Pentagon, is intent on going after Syria’s. On Sunday, Representative Adam Schiff said that it was sickening that the president would send U.S. troops to defend the oil, but not the Kurds. While that is true, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Trump isn’t just talking about defending the oil, he is openly talking about taking it, which is a war crime.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.