Trump Says U.S. Troops Stayed in Syria 'Because I Kept the Oil'

At a Wisconsin rally on Tuesday, President Donald Trump lauded his decision to retain troops in eastern Syria to control oil fields there, despite warnings that such a move could constitute a war crime.

The president delivered a characteristically bombastic speech in Milwaukee, touching on multiple foreign policy issues that have come to the fore in recent months.

Among them was America's controversial continued presence in Syria, the recent assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani and subsequent retaliatory missile attacks.

"People said to me, 'Why are you staying in Syria,'" Trump said Tuesday. "Because I kept the oil, which frankly we should have done in Iraq," he added, to cheers and applause from the audience. The president has previously criticized his predecessors for not profiting off Iraqi oil wells.

"So they say, 'Trump's in Syria,' I didn't pull out—I did pull out," the president continued. "We have the oil, really secure. We'll see what happens with it."

Trump's Middle East policy has been erratic, in few places more so than Syria. The president has repeatedly voiced his desire to bring U.S. troops home and disengage from another unwinnable, long-running, low-intensity conflict there.

The president abruptly ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from positions in northeastern Syria near the border with Turkey in October.

Troops were deployed there alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which led the campaign against the Islamic State militant group in Syria with U.S. and Coalition support.

Turkish forces invaded soon after, seeking to push Kurdish fighters away from the border region.

Though the withdrawal seemed to mark the end of U.S. presence in Syria, Trump later announced he would retain a force in the east of the country to guard the oil wells there.

American troops are also still deployed in the north of the country, where joint Russian and Turkish patrols now operate.

The official reason for the oil field deployment was to keep the resources out of the hands of ISIS remnants, but the president himself admitted he wanted to bring in American companies to extract the oil.

In an interview with Fox News last week, the president repeatedly told Laura Ingraham, "I left troops to take the oil. I took the oil. The only troops I have are taking the oil."

Ingraham tried to help Trump walk back his claim, asserting that American forces were protecting rather than pillaging the oil. The president replied, "Well, maybe we will. Maybe we won't."

Experts warned that seizing and profiting from Syrian oil fields could constitute a war crime. But on Tuesday, Trump—who this month threatened to commit war crimes against Iran—celebrated his strategy.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies have said the U.S. is smuggling oil out of Syria for profit. Assad also said last year that American troops risk death by remaining in the war-torn country.

A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek: "Any claim that the United States is stealing oil from Syria is completely false and baseless."

"As the president has said, the United States is there to accomplish the defeat ISIS mission, including by denying ISIS access to critical resources and revenue that could allow it to regain strength," the spokesperson added.

"To do this, we are continuing the vital mission of assisting our SDF partners in securing oil fields in northeast Syria once occupied and used by ISIS to generate revenue.

"Syrian oil is for the Syrian people. The population in areas liberated from ISIS make their own decisions on local governance and economic issues. As U.S. officials have previously said, the SDF has had access to the oil resources in order to generate revenue for people living in the northeast and assist with the defeat-ISIS mission," the spokesperson said.

Trump was accused of abandoning America's Kurdish allies and green-lighting the Turkish invasion. The subsequent conflict also strained Kurdish manpower, forcing authorities to underman prisons holding captured ISIS fighters and allowing dozens to escape.

Trump was unapologetic, dismissing the strategic value of the area and claiming the U.S. had no obligation to support the Kurdish-led forces there, who sustained more than 12,000 casualties in the fight against ISIS.

Trump said Tuesday that the continued U.S. deployment around the eastern oil fields will allow him to "help our friends the Kurds, because that's where they got their wealth. And then ultimately it was with ISIS…but right now, it's with the United States military."

This article has been updated to include comment from the State Department.

Donald Trump, rally, Syria, oil, war crimes
President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 14, 2020. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/Getty