Donald Trump has renewed his threats to forcibly steal oil from Syria, a move which experts say would amount to a war crime.
The president defended his decision to leave a small number of American troops in the war-torn nation after a general withdrawal in October by claiming they were only there to secure Syria’s oilfields.
“They say he left troops in Syria… do you know what I did? I took the oil,” he said during a Fox News interview.
“The only troops I have are taking the oil, they are protecting the oil.”
When the interviewer, Laura Ingraham, attempted to correct Mr Trump by insisting the soldiers were not there to take the oil but to guard the facilities, the president cut her off.
“I don’t know, maybe we should take it, but we have the oil. Right now, the United States has the oil. We have the oil.”
This is not the first time the erratic former business tycoon has publicly mused about stealing Syria’s oil reserves.
In October, shortly after his abrupt withdrawal of US forces and abandoning of their Kurdish allies in the region, Mr Trump said he wanted an American oil firm to fly in to tap Syria’s oil on behalf of the government.
“What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly,” he said.
However, such a move would likely constitute pillage and looting, actions which have long been designated as illegal under international law and the rules of war.
The Geneva Convention, which the US is a signatory to, explicitly prohibits the looting of property during conflict, defining it as a war crime.
“The president appears to believe that the US can sell the oil, based on his statements in the past about Iraqi oil and Libyan oil … thinking that we can loot countries,” Benjamin Friedman, policy director at think tank Defence Priorities and adjunct professor at the George Washington University, told The Independent last year.
“I am sure people in the White House have tried to explain to him that is not how it works.
“Taking the profits from the sale of Syrian oil for the US treasury would be illegal. That would probably qualify as pillaging under the law.”
Ironically, experts say Syria’s oil fields are not much of a prize anyway. Even before the country descended in a chaotic civil war, it only produced about 380,000 barrels of poor-quality oil a day.
In 2018, after its production was several hampered by the conflict, it produced about the same amount of oil as the state of Illinois.
Before he entered the White House, Mr Trump had said several times that the US should have “taken the oil” from the other Middle Eastern nations its armed forces had intervened in, including Iraq and Libya.
Some commentators have speculated that defence officials desperate to persuade the president to permit some US forces to remain in Syria as a counter-balance to Isis and the Assad regime were forced to appeal to his oil obsession to gain his approval.