DAMASCUS, Syria — A top adviser to Syria’s president says the United States has no right to Syria’s oil and has warned of “operations” against American troops guarding the oil fields.
Bouthaina Shaaban, who is a political and media adviser to Bashar al-Assad, recently told NBC News that the U.S. has “absolutely no right; it is our oil.”
“He’s talking about stealing it,” she added in her office at Syria's presidential palace in Damascus, referring to President Donald Trump’s declaration earlier this year that the U.S. would “keep” Syrian oil.
In October, the Trump administration announced plans to withdraw some 1,000 troops from Syria, amounting to most of the U.S. military presence in the country. But he later reversed course, approving an expanded military mission to secure an expanse of oil fields across eastern Syria.
Shaaban went on to warn of “popular opposition and operations against the American occupiers of our oil.”
Shaaban, who often speaks for Assad, said there was no question in his mind that “our land should be totally and completely liberated from foreign occupiers, whether they are terrorists, or the Turks or the Americans.”
Her words came as Syrian government forces pressed ahead with an operation in northwestern Syria to take back the country’s last rebel stronghold, having in recent years gained the upper hand in the civil war.
The war has raged for more than eight years, involving neighbors and superpowers, including Turkey, Iran, the U.S. and Russia, as well as their proxies.
Rights groups accuse the Syrian government and its backers of using internationally banned weapons, including barrel bombs and chemical weapons, such as chlorine, on civilian populations. The government also stands accused in the forcible disappearance of its own people, executing thousands of prisoners in mass hangings and carrying out systematic torture in military jails.
Since Dec. 16, aerial bombardment has intensified in southern Idlib province accelerating displacement that had begun in November, according to a report published by the United Nations.
The recent escalation has resulted in dozens of civilian casualties and the displacement of at least 80,000 civilians, including 30,000 in the last week alone, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. secretary general said Monday.
The secretary general was also alarmed by reports of attacks on evacuation routes as civilians try to flee north to safety, she said. Meanwhile, winter has exacerbated the vulnerability of the people who urgently need shelter and food among other basic amenities, the U.N. added.
Fears are growing for the fate of civilians caught in Idlib.
The Syrian American Medical Society announced Monday that it was forced to suspend its operations in two major hospitals in the region, evacuating patients and staff. The two facilities served a population of 300,000 civilians.
Shaaban said in the interview that the war had been "imposed" on Syria.
"The war was against Syria, it was not against the president, it was against the country and against the people," she said.
Conflict in Syria broke out after an Arab Spring-inspired uprising that began as a peaceful protest in 2011 escalated into an armed rebellion following a brutal government crackdown. The Islamic State militant group was able to exploit the chaos to seize up to a third of the country at one point. Today, it has lost its caliphate although the extremists' threat has not gone away.
During years of war, more than a third of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged, according to the International Crisis Group. The conflict has displaced half of the population and left an estimated 11.7 million people inside the country in need of humanitarian assistance, it added.
Meanwhile, the question of what to do with suspected members of ISIS imprisoned in camps in northern Syria has yet to be resolved. Shaabaan said it was “likely” that those prisoners held by the Kurds would face trial in Syria.
European countries, including Britain, have stripped ISIS fighters of their nationalities to prevent their return.
With ISIS defeated and Idlib the last rebel stronghold, Syria is now looking at how it can rebuild.
Shaaban said that only countries that supported Damascus during the war would be allowed to help rebuild the country.
“China is a big candidate ... China has the money and the expertise and the friendship with us. And so has Russia," she said.
Several Western nations have already said they would not be involved in rebuilding the war-shattered country.
Last year, Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the idea that America would help "rebuild Syria" for Assad and Russian supporters was "absurd."