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Syrian government condemns oil deal between Kurds and US firm as 'theft'

The deal comes months after president Trump expressed interest in the country's lucrative oil fields
A US military vehicle patrols the oil fields in in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province in May 2020 (AFP)

The Syrian government on Sunday condemned an agreement between Kurdish-led forces in the country's northeast and a US oil company, describing it as "theft" and an "affront to national sovereignty".

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday what he described as a "very powerful" deal penned between a US firm and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was backed by the US in the war to oust the Islamic State group (IS) from the region.

The SDF, a Kurdish-led paramilitary alliance, backs a semi-autonomous administration in northeastern Syria and controls the country's biggest oilfields, still claimed by Damascus.

The Syrian foreign ministry statement, published on state media, said the agreement was set “to steal Syrian oil... supported by the US administration."

The statement decried "an agreement between... thieves who steal and thieves who buy".

It also condemned "the hostile US position towards Syria, the theft of the Syrian people's riches and its hindrance of the state's reconstruction efforts". 

The statement came days after senator Lindsey Graham, a longtime supporter of the Syrian Kurds, told a congressional hearing on Thursday that he had spoken about the deal with SDF commander General Mazloum Abdi.

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"Apparently they've signed a deal with an American oil company to modernise the oil fields in northeastern Syria," Graham said.

Asked by Graham if the US was supportive of the deal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "We are."

"The deal took a little longer, senator, than we had hoped and we're now in implementation. It can be very powerful," Pompeo said.

Senior US officials confirmed an agreement to "modernise" the fields, without naming the US company or providing other details.

Lucrative oil fields

Syria's war began in 2011 with the violent suppression of peaceful protests and snowballed into a multi-fronted conflict pulling in multiple external powers.

The fighting has often destroyed hydrocarbon infrastructure, which has been coveted by the various belligerents.

During the long-running conflict, IS seized large swathes of the country, including some of the most lucrative oil-producing fields in the country’s northeast. The fields subsequently fell into the hands of the Kurds as the SDF, backed by a US-led coalition seized the final patch of IS territory in March 2019.

In October, US President Donald Trump said that a small contingent of US troops would remain in Syria to guard those fields as the US evacuated its forces amid a Turkish offensive against the Kurds.

"We've secured the oil, and, therefore, a small number of US troops will remain in the area where they have the oil," Trump said.

Before the civil war, Syria produced nearly 400,000 barrels of oil per day, but output has collapsed during the conflict.