These last few weeks at the gas pump have been eye-opening due to the exploitation of the Colonial Pipeline by Russian-based hackers seeking ransom. Those of us who remember the long gas lines in the 1970s due to the Middle East oil crisis began searching our garages for empty gas cans, followed by “when was the last time I changed my computer password?” One characteristic common to many recent attacks are the nexus of Russia, China, and Iran who frequently harbor the bad actors or actively direct their activity.
I offer this point because our current administration is on the verge of making a critical misstep in the Middle East, specifically in Syria, as it appears there is policy shift that presents an opportunity for increased regional influence and economic prosperity to Russia and other nefarious actors. In 2013, President Obama invited U.S. companies to invest in North and East Syria (NES) economic activities. The objective of this policy, supported by many current Biden administration officials at the time, was to empower our ally, dissuade non-state actor interference, and build investments/generate revenue including petroleum transactions that benefit the NES people. As a result, Delta Crescent Energy, a service-disabled veteran led, American energy company with deep special operations and petroleum experience with Syria, in 2019 petitioned to receive an oil investment license from the Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).
Delta Crescent Energy was granted a license in April 2020 to redevelop the NES oil fields, develop legal international sales, invest and provide a refinery for domestic/humanitarian use in NES, and conduct environmental clean-up, repairs and redevelopment. Despite a global pandemic, more than $2 billion in international sales agreements were secured for the NES people. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) governs the NES region and has communicated the critical need for continued OFAC licensing to the Biden State Department when it came up for renewal in April 2021. To date, the Biden administration’s response to this request has been lackluster, signaling a reluctance to renew the licensing for U.S. companies to engage in these regional economic activities. Despite significant progress in sales agreements, overwhelming support in the region by U.S. allied stakeholders, and by a large group of bipartisan members of Congress, the Biden administration only provided a 30-day extension of Delta Crescent Energy’s OFAC license, which ends May 31. As a result, revenue that supports our counter-ISIS allies and to the people in the region is on hold due to the uncertainty and perceived lack of commitment to a U.S. policy that has been in place since the 2013 Obama-Biden administration.
As the deadline for Delta Crescent Energy license nears, both the Syrian Defense Force and the Syrian Democratic Council, the military and political arms of the AANES, have pleaded directly to the Biden State Department to renew the license. The reply has been less than satisfying as the AANES was told the U.S. is in Syria for the People of NES and to fight ISIS, just not to assist in the export of oil. This is a gross misunderstanding of what is at stake. The renewal of the license is not about oil. It is about regional influence and economic stability. It is also about the people of Syria.
If U.S. investment and business activities by companies such as Delta Crescent Energy do not occur, other countries such as Russia, China, and Iran will certainly fill the void. This point was recently highlighted by Marine General Frank McKenzie, Commander, U.S. Central Command, during his recent visit to the Middle East, including Syria.
“The Middle East writ broadly is an area of intense competition between the great powers. And I think that as we adjust our posture in the region, Russia and China will be looking very closely to see if a vacuum opens that they can exploit.”
McKenzie’s comments were not about military activities or oil but were about influence and stability. The Biden administration is on the path to cede more of both to our adversaries if they do not renew the OFAC license to Delta Crescent Energy. Moving forward in the absence of strong regional policies to protect our national interests, we all need to be more mindful of our gas consumption and rethink using a pet’s name as an email password.
Michael Lumpkin is a former Navy SEAL Commander. He served as the deputy commander of all special operations during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. His national security civilian leadership roles in the Obama administration included Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict. He also established the State Department’s Global Engagement Center to counter violent extremists’ online presence, propaganda and disinformation.