A convoy of U.S. military vehicles, arriving from northern Iraq, drives past an oil pump jack in the countryside of Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli on Oct. 26.
Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images
Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images
Roger Diwan is vice president of IHS Markit and director for energy and financial markets. Daniel Yergin is vice chairman of IHS Markit and author of The Prize and The Quest.
Syrian oil is suddenly a hot topic in Washington, D.C. The announcement that U.S. forces in Syria, while generally withdrawing, would remain to protect the oil fields has focused a spotlight on the significance of those resources.
Syrian oil has always been of prime importance to President Bashar Assad’s regime. It provided about 25% of government revenues prior to the civil war. But that oil had hardly any importance to the world oil market. At 385,000 barrels per day before the civil war began in 2011, it was barely a footnote for the global market — less than half a percent of world supply.
But the rise of ISIS did suddenly make Syrian oil important to the world community — not in terms of volume but because of what it allowed ISIS to do. During the ISIS “caliphate,” production plunged by 90% to about 40,000 barrels a day in 2015. Yet ISIS was able to turn the barrels under its control into money, smuggling them into Turkey, selling in local markets — and selling to the Assad regime. Still, that minuscule amount of oil earned, at the peak, about half a billion dollars a year for ISIS, giving it the financial heft that no terrorist organization had ever had before, indeed making it by far the richest terrorist organization in the world. Among other things, it enabled ISIS to lure fighters from other groups in Syria and from abroad with higher wages.
With the rollback and then the defeat of ISIS, control of most of the oil fields passed into the hands of the Kurdish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces. During the campaign against ISIS, the above-ground infrastructure was a target of bombing, aimed at depriving ISIS of revenues, and was further damaged in battles. There was no normal maintenance of the oil system. There are no hard numbers, but it is thought that the total output today is in the 15,000-30,000 barrels a day range. As such, it would still be an important source of revenues for the SDF and the Kurds.
It will take a lot of investment — and time — to bring back the production to the pre-civil war level, and there will be few companies willing to commit even when the sovereignty issues are resolved between the various factions controlling the oil fields.
Syria had a relatively diverse foreign investor mix before the war — from large companies like Total and Sinopec to small companies such as Gulfsands — working alongside the state Syrian Petroleum Company in production-sharing agreements. The ramp-up in violence and European Union sanctions imposed on Syria at the end of 2011 led to an exodus of nearly all the foreign companies.
Yet even prior to the civil war, Syria was not a particularly attractive destination in commercial terms for oil companies. The government took 85% of the revenues from operations, compounded by heavy-handed administration by the regime. The oil fields are concentrated in two regions in the vast eastern desert — one in the northeast of the country and the other along the Euphrates River — and are in no way comparable to the bountiful oil provinces of Iraq or the ones in the Persian Gulf. The reserves in Syria are small, dispersed and far from export facilities on the Mediterranean. Altogether, Syria’s oil resources are marginal in the great oil game of the Middle East and for the world industry.
There are several possible rationales for maintaining U.S. forces in the oil fields. One is to assure that some of these fields do not again fall into the hands of a resurgent ISIS. While ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died a few days ago, and the group’s spokesman was killed, there are still many thousands of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, plus more held in makeshift prisons. Even if there is little chance of the “caliphate” being restored, these fighters could still cause further damage to the fields, which are the most tangible resource that Syria has.
A second possible reason is to keep the oil fields out of the hands of Assad, and possibly the Russians, and maintain as a bargaining chip for the opposition in the course of working out some kind of settlement with the Assad regime. A third would be to preserve these fields as an engine of recovery for the day when there is a post-Assad regime. But, whatever the course, it would be a long time before those fields can begin to even approach the pre-civil war level of production.
And, from the perspective of the global market, they will remain insignificant. Just look at the scale. Syria was at that 385,000 barrels per day in 2011. That same year, the United States produced 5.7 million barrels per day. Since then the U.S. has grown to 12.6 million.
What happens to Syrian oil will be important to the future of Syria itself — as a revenue source for a country that will desperately need money. That, rather than its impact on global supply, is what will make what happens to Syrian oil of significance to the world.
Kerry Washington reprises her role of Kendra from the 2018 Broadway play in Netflix’s American Son.
Netflix is the perfect home for low-budget stage adaptations, and the service should really be churning them out with the same frequency as its stand-up specials. Its take on American Son, the hyper-topical drama by Christopher Demos-Brown that premiered on Broadway last year, isn’t trying to be fancy. The film is almost entirely contained inside the police station that serves as the show’s setting, with occasional, unnecessary flashbacks to other moments and moods. Mostly it traps us in a moment we desperately want to look away from: the liminal space of a mother not knowing if her son is OK.
In the beginning it works. Stuck in a drab waiting room with nothing but some couches for awkward sitting, Kendra (Kerry Washington) struggles to extract any useful information on her son’s whereabouts from the rookie officer on duty (Jeremy Jordan), a baby-faced prick who won’t hide his casual racism. (“Did he have any distinguishing … gold teeth?”) The dark hallways echo with indifference, and the thunder outside rages. There’s no escape from the terror of not knowing.
Washington’s performance is still pitched at a stage level: full of volcanic, play-it-to-the-rafters anguish. She spends most of the drama in a defensive crouch, fighting off the bureaucracies keeping her in that waiting room, and absorbing tongue-lashings from the men around her. When she does strike back, it’s usually to draw our attention to the deeper strands of racism that inform her anxiety over her son: invoking names like Tamir Rice and Philando Castile, or speculating as to why the old police station might have two drinking fountains right next to each other. Washington delivers these cuts with the reluctance of someone who knows she’s about to be pigeonholed as yet another mouthy black woman.
If the film was just 90 minutes of a terrified black mother getting stonewalled by a white cop, it’d be unwatchable … and it’d reduce Washington’s textured expression of pain to a stock role. So in many ways it’s Steven Pasquale, making a delayed entrance as Kendra’s estranged white husband Scott, who has to move things forward. Scott is a domineering FBI agent who’s carefully nurtured a lifetime of ambitions within his son, from fancy prep school to a projected law enforcement career via West Point. “The men in my family have served this country every generation since they got here,” he thunders, with no room for deviation.
But what’s odd about Scott, both as he’s performed by Pasquale and written by Demos-Brown, is how clueless he is. The character doesn’t act like someone who fathered and raised a mixed-race son for 18 years and built a relationship with a black woman for at least that long. He acts like someone who’s never had more than one conversation with a black person in his life. He’s shocked to hear that his son might want to befriend other black men outside his social circle. He’s shocked to imagine his son could become a victim of racial profiling. He’s shocked to realize, in general, that his son won’t respond to the social stigma of the modern world the same way a white one would — all facts that Kendra, in her darkest hour, has to explain to him, so that she can also explain these things to us.
Maybe this obtuseness is the point, since Scott’s meant to be a lousy husband and father. And playwrights have to heavily underline the conflicts they create between a tiny handful of characters trapped in an enclosed space. And yet, here’s a dad who’s a complete alien to his own family, ranting about Black Lives Matter as he stands next to a black woman he supposedly once loved. He’s no different from any other bozo with a badge. (Critic Soraya Nadia McDonald, in her review of the Broadway production, mused these characters “have been grown in separate petri dishes.”)
Scott turns out to be the harbinger of a reductiveness that bleeds into the rest of the story, a naked desire to force drama into metaphors it can’t hold. Every twist is built around the reveal of either a character’s race or their racially motivated actions, both easy shortcuts to catharsis. It never gets bad enough to completely undo the emotional impact of watching a parent’s worst fears gradually realized, but it doesn’t help the production’s lofty goals, either. Peep the grandiosity of that title again.
Some film directors who adapt stage works believe it’s their job to fool us into thinking we’re not watching a play, because plays aren’t cinematic enough. They’re wrong. The play is all we need, provided it’s good enough to merit the adaptation in the first place. American Son is so explosive and angry that helmer Kenny Leon, who also directed the play on Broadway, gets out of its way entirely. Which means now we can see, a little too clearly, that the show doesn’t wield its anger responsibly. The next time Netflix goes sniffing around Broadway, it should bring back something with brains to match heart.
Cynthia Erivo (left) stars as Harriet Tubman along with Aria Brooks (right).
Glen Wilson/Focus Features
Glen Wilson/Focus Features
Unless and until Harriet Tubman assumes her place on the $20 bill, writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet will have to serve as the anti-slavery heroine’s national monument. It will do so reasonably well. Like most monuments, the biopic is somber, well-intentioned, and fundamentally inert. But British actress Cynthia Erivo, in the title role, animates it.
The story opens blandly with a shot of mid-Atlantic scenery, circa 1846, and a dollop of Terence Blanchard’s score, which is as earnest and conventional as the movie. Then Araminta “Minty” Ross, a young enslaved woman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has one of her spells.
The image turns bluish as the woman — later to rename herself Harriet Tubman — swoons and sees a vision. These trances are historically accurate. (They were likely the result of an injury that occurred when a slave master, throwing a metal weight at someone else, fractured her 13-year-old skull.) But the director’s attempt to enter Tubman’s head is unpersuasive. Harriet is very much an outside experience.
Tubman was promised her freedom, but is denied it by young plantation heir Gideon Brodess owner (Joe Alwyn, in the same slave-holder-as-dissolute-rock-star mode as Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained). Then Gideon decides to sell her, so Tubman runs away and heads for the Pennsylvania border.
In Philadelphia, she finds shelter and community, notably with abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and free-born African American boarding-house matron Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). But Tubman can’t abide that she left her parents, husband, and brothers behind. So she returns in a bid to lead them to freedom.
That mission is the first of 13, and Tubman becomes known as the “Moses” who conducts enslaved people to Pennsylvania and beyond. (After the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act endangers people of color throughout the country, the favored destination becomes Canada.)
Tubman carried a pistol, as this film’s protagonist does, but her principal weapon was stealth. The script — co-written by Gregory Allen Howard, whose Remember the Titans was almost entirely fiction — invents dramatic confrontations with slave holders and trackers. These would likely have turned out much worse for Tubman that they do here. But the principal reason they feel false is that they play like bits lifted from random chase flicks, not history. Tubman is even given a moment where she rides off on a white horse.
The action scenes aren’t Harriet‘s most contrived aspect, though. That would be the way Tubman periodically bursts into song, serenading her loved ones with gospel tunes that they — and everyone else on screen — somehow can’t hear. It’s as if Tubman is having a spell in a movie musical.
The film also become less convincing, and more preachy, in its final half hour, which depicts Tubman as an abolitionist celebrity. In the earlier sequences, the tight focus on Tubman — and on Erivo — energizes the generic material. Once Harriet widens to incorporate cameos by Frederick Douglass and the like, it feels more like a chapter from a history for young readers.
Vondie Curtis Hall and Henry Hunter Hall have nice moments as black men who, in very different ways, support both slavery and the people who flee it. But such ambiguity is not typical of Harriet, which is more attuned to righteousness than nuance. If the movie doesn’t burn as brightly as Tubman’s legacy, the tale it tells is illuminating nonetheless.
Motherless Brooklyn, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (left) and Edward Norton (right), follows a detective who get caught up investigating corruption in New York City.
Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures
Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures
For the 20 years since he read an advance copy of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton has labored to direct an adaptation and cast himself in the lead role of Lionel Essrog, a private detective with Tourette syndrome. His tenacity in seeing the project through to the end is extraordinary, but the years haven’t diminished the fundamental challenges to bringing Lethem’s book to the screen. For all the questions raised about Norton’s decision to turn back the clock and set the action in the 1950s — a decision that actually pays dividends to some extent — he can’t solve the most common problem with any adaptation: The internal cannot be made external.
The unique experience of reading Motherless Brooklyn is staying inside Lionel’s head, confined to its tics and loops while also witness to the odd rigors that make him such an excellent detective. As an actor, Norton makes a five-course meal out of Lionel’s affliction — which, frankly, resembles Dustin Hoffman’s autist in Rain Man too closely — but all his considerable passion and wit cannot blanket the film in the character’s voice like it does in the novel. He’s more like a novelty player in a mediocre municipal noir that’s a copy of a copy of Chinatown, like an East Coast cover of L.A. Confidential.
Like many detective stories of its kind, Motherless Brooklyn starts with a small crime that metastasizes into a much larger, more insidious civic cancer. In 1957 New York, Lionel works under private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who’s brought him under his wing despite his annoying outbursts and cognitive hiccups. When Minna gets murdered for reasons unknown, Lionel and the other surviving “Minna Boys” at the agency are left to pick through the mystery, but only he has the dedication and the mental discipline to splash around in increasingly murky waters.
The mystery of Minna’s death brings Lionel to a clash between black residents and city planners, focused on a Harlem nightclub called The King Rooster, which has become a hub for Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a lawyer and community activist who stands between the neighborhood and the forces of white gentrification. As Lionel and Laura become partners — with possible benefits — they plunge headlong into a clash with rapacious visionary Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and get aid from a scruffy malcontent (Willem Dafoe) who seems intent on stopping Moses’ plans, albeit for more mysterious reasons.
The rationale for bringing Lethem’s story to the ’50s is sound on several important fronts, mainly in pinpointing a time in the city’s history when planning for the future involved running real estate scams, deploying low-level goons to do the dirty work, and using any means necessary to steamroll opposition from minority communities. Norton also uses the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere at a Harlem jazz club that benefits from the authenticity of real musicians like Wynton Marsalis playing on the stage. The film is keenly attuned not only to the devastating changes that can transform a neighborhood, but to the culture and the human beings who are victimized by it.
On a stylistic front, the ’50s setting also gives Norton and his cinematographer, Dick Pope, the opportunity to turn Motherless Brooklyn into a neo-noir, evoking the hard shadows and bottomless cynicism of a postwar urban environment. It’s always been a challenge to render a black-and-white subgenre in color, but rarely has a film failed so spectacularly to get the atmosphere right. Pope has done consistently superb work for director Mike Leigh, but his digital camera flattens the images and makes every scene overly bright, like looking at a bank of TV sets at a department store. Noirs are about exploiting offscreen space and directing the eye through lighting technique, but the action here comes through with damnable sharpness.
As for Norton as Lionel, it was always going to be difficult for his emotional life to reach full flower on screen, despite the vulnerability that draws good people like Minna and Laura to his side. He gives the type of performance where the technique is admirable but not invisible, and that’s enough of a distraction to keep him at a distance. He does better in those solitary moments when Lionel works through evidence methodically and obsessively, like an itch that needs constant scratching until it finally goes away. His genius takes a fascinating shape, even if it’s applied to a second-hand mystery that’s unworthy of him.