Syria's Assad Says the U.S. Is Working With 'Terrorists' and Selling Oil Stolen From the Country

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accused U.S. forces of stealing the country's oil and working with terrorists to maintain their positions there, as he tries to restore his authoritarian rule over the war-torn nation.

Assad—who is backed by Russia and Iran—told state news agency SANA that Syrians must unite to make America's position in the country untenable.

It has been a turbulent end to 2019 for U.S. forces in Syria. There were some 2,000 soldiers stationed in the country until October, when President Donald Trump abruptly ordered American troops out of position in the northeast of the country, where they were deployed alongside allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

This facilitated a Turkish invasion of the area, with many U.S. forces ordered to retreat into Iraq. The Trump administration has since said it will retain a small American force in the east of the country to guard the oil wells there, thought to be around 500 soldiers backed by armored vehicles.

The official logic behind the plan is to deny Islamic State remnants access to the potentially lucrative wells. However, Trump himself has said he would like to bring in U.S. companies to work the fields.

Assad—who has repeatedly criticized and mocked America's erratic Syria strategy—claimed in his SANA interview that the U.S. is extracting oil from the fields and selling it to Turkey.

"Now America is the one stealing oil and selling it to Turkey," Assad said, according to Russia's state-backed Tass news agency. Assad noted that the Americans are following in the footsteps of Al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, both of which sold oil from the fields of eastern Syria.

"The Turkish regime plays a direct part," Assad added, accusing Ankara of also working with al-Nusra and ISIS. Assad's Russian backers have previously accused the Americans of smuggling oil out of Syria, estimating the U.S. could export some $30 million worth from the fields each month.

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 will deny 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."

The State Department spokesperson stressed, "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."

Assad—whose brutal crackdown on reformist protesters in 2011 sparked the ruinous civil war—also once again urged Syrians to unite and force remaining Americans out of the country.

Key areas of the country remain outside Assad's control, but with Russian and Iranian support the strongman has been able to take back much of the nation.

The Turkish invasion in October gave Assad valuable gains, with the SDF—abandoned by their American allies—forced to turn to Damascus for help against the Turks and their Islamist proxy militias. This handed control of key cities and areas to the regime with barely a shot fired.

In his SANA interview, Assad also suggested that continued U.S. presence relies on the help of militant groups. "The Americans rely on terrorists," he said. "The terrorists must be attacked, this is a priority for us in Syria. Striking the terrorists weakens the American presence one way or another."

Assad did not specify to which groups he was referring, but American and other Western troops have worked closely with the SDF and the Kurdish militias that form its backbone. Together, these forces fought ISIS and recaptured the territory it had controlled.

Assad added there remain groups "acting under American command" in Syria, and said they "must be persuaded, one way or another and particularly through dialogue, that it is in all our interests in Syria that they embrace the homeland and join the Syrian state's efforts to liberate all its territories."

"At that point, it's only natural that there will be no prospect for an American presence," he claimed.

Many Syrian communities will have no wish to return to the Assadist fold, having fled from or fought against the despotic regime for more than eight years. Assad's government has shown itself to be brutal, vindictive and unapologetic in fighting dissenters, all of whom the president has cast as terrorists.

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

Bashar al-Assad, Syria, US, oil, smuggle, steal
A Syrian boy looks at a convoy of U.S. armoured vehicles patrolling fields near the northeastern town of Qahtaniyah at the border with Turkey, on October 31, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images/Getty