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Asia Fact Check Lab: Did the U.S. steal oil from Syria as China claims?

In Brief

Over the past few months, China has repeatedly accused the U.S. of “illegally stealing” oil from Syria in an act of “banditry.” 

Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) found that the accusations echo those made by official Syrian media reports. The Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad has no control over the northeast area of the country, which is occupied by the anti-government coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  U.S. and international media have reported that a U.S. company had secured an oil deal in the area, but it did so with the approval of the SDF, which helped to oust ISIS terrorist forces that previously controlled the oil production there. The U.S. currently authorizes non-governmental organizations to purchase petroleum in Syria, but the products have to stay in Syria for non-profit use.

In Depth

“The illegal plundering of natural resources in Syria by foreign troops must stop immediately,” Dai Bing, China’s ambassador to the U.N., said during the U.N. Security Council briefing on Syria, according to a Jan. 26 report by Chinese state media Global Times. The article said that U.S. troops have been “slammed” for “stealing” oil from Syria.

China has repeatedly accused the U.S. of taking Syria’s oil in recent months. At a Jan. 17 press conference for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a China Central Television (CCTV) reporter quoted Syrian state news reports that the “illegal” U.S. garrison in the country had smuggled 53 tankers of oil from the northeast province of al-Hasakah into northern Iraq. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin has described the actions as “illegal looting” and “banditry” and said that the U.S. is exacerbating the humanitarian disaster in Syria.

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At a Jan. 17 press conference, spokesperson Wang Wenbin claimed the U.S. had “illegally plundered oil” from Syria. Photo/Screenshot of the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

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Several Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespersons have accused the U.S. of stealing Syrian oil at several press conferences during the last few months. Photo/Screenshot of the Chinese Foreign Ministry website

Where do these allegations of stealing oil come from?

The information cited recently by the CCTV reporter in the Jan. 17 press conference followed a Jan. 14 report by the Syrian Arab News Agency. The SANA report cites anonymous local sources accusing the U.S. military of stealing 53 tankers of oil. The short report provides few details and only a single photo of an oil tanker. No explanation or sourcing accompanied the photo, and no mention was made of the agreement between the U.S. company and SDF.

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The Jan. 14 Syrian Arab News Agency report on U.S. oil theft. Photo/Screenshot of SANA report

Reporters from official Chinese media outlets quoted similar SANA reports that featured general accusations without any additional context at previous press conferences. The SANA reports never cite the location where the theft allegedly occurred and sometimes appear to reuse the same photo. 

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SANA reports on U.S. oil theft from December, November, and September 2022. Photo/Screenshot of SANA reports

Is the U.S. getting oil in Syria?

Credible media outlets report that U.S. companies have extracted oil in northeast Syria. But Chinese claims that the U.S. is stealing Syrian resources lack sufficient context. 

The SDF occupies the northeastern part of the country, independent of the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad. In 2020, Delta Crescent Energy, a little known U.S. oil company, signed a contract with the SDF that allowed the company to extract oil. The State Department has not disclosed many details about the deal, but a report by U.S. media outlet Politico said that some of the oil was refined to use in the region, with the rest exported to Iraq and Turkey. 

The Syrian government has strongly criticized the agreement, saying that the U.S. is taking the country’s oil without its permission. State-sponsored media in Russia and Iran have also described the U.S. actions as the “theft” and “plunder” of Syrian resources.

U.S. and international media outlets and think tanks have covered the oil deal Delta signed with the SDF in 2020. CNN reported the deal was signed in secret and that Delta Crescent was created by former political and military officials during the Trump administration. News reports note that the agreement was approved by the U.S. in order to keep Russia, Syria’s Assad government and ISIS terrorist forces that had controlled the region from benefiting from oil production there.

A story recently published by Esquire revealed how Delta Crescent was first awarded the contract and the company’s ensuing difficulties with the Biden administration. The company’s license expired in 2021, with reports at the time indicating that the White House planned to abandon support for oil operations in Syria. 

“Syrian oil is for the Syrian people. The United States does not own, control or manage any of those resources, nor do we wish to,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told AFCL. The spokesperson said the department does not comment on the operations of private companies there. 

The spokesperson told AFCL that SDF will continue to deny ISIS access to oil and gas revenue in northeast Syria, which it previously used to fund its terror campaign. 

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which first authorized Delta Crescent’s oil deal in Syria, now only allows NGOs to purchase refined petroleum products from Syria. The products have to be used in Syria for non-profit purposes. Oil extraction is not an authorized activity, according to the current Code of Federal Regulations and Syria General License issued by OFAC in 2022.

Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) is a new branch of RFA, established to counter disinformation in today’s complex media environment. Our journalists publish both daily and special reports that aim to sharpen and deepen our readers’ understanding of public issues.

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