Father Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest, incardinated in the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. A native of London, and ordained in Canterbury, England, in 1994, Father Ben devotes his priestly ministry to aid and advocacy for persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East. He founded Nasarean.org, a charity based in Stowe, Vermont, and divides his time between the U.S., UK, and the Middle East, speaking, preaching, and writing about the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. He has visited war-torn Iraq on multiple occasions since 2015, and has visited Syria and Lebanon where his charity supports a number of family businesses. As migration across the Mediterranean has ramped up in recent months amid exchanges of drone attacks between the U.S. and Iran over Syrian soil, The European Conservative contacted Fr. Kiely for an overview of the humanitarian situation in the Middle East.
When an Iranian drone attack killed an American contractor and wounded eight U.S. soldiers in Syria at the end of March, it suddenly brought the war-torn country back into the West’s consciousness, at least for a brief moment.
Doug Bandow, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former advisor to former U.S. President Ronald Regan, wrote for The American Conservative, “Why Are We Still in Syria?”
Bandow criticised both the Obama and Biden administrations for their commitments to keeping troops in Syria, but, rather than cast aspersions on former President Donald Trump, blamed Trump’s decision to keep the 900-person strong force in the country on his “never Trump” opponents. Bandow never once brought up the “o” word—oil: Trump’s frank admission as to why almost a thousand American boots had to remain on the ground in Syria.
Fr. Benedict Kiely does not fall for such red herrings.
Currently, Syrian is undergoing an almost forgotten humanitarian crisis largely brought about by ongoing economic sanctions, exacerbated by the economic collapse of its neighbour Lebanon. Fr. Ben, who has been on the ground in both Syria and Lebanon, agreed to discuss the situation in Syrian and the surrounding region.
“They’re occupying the oil fields. They’re stealing the Syrians’ oil,” he said in an interview with The European Conservative, explaining why American troops are still in Syria and standing close enough to American contractors so that both were struck in the same attack.
On the geo-political level, indeed, the U.S. base in Syria, which was targeted by Iran, is at the Al-Omar oil field. As Syria’s largest oil field, it produced 25,000 barrels of crude a day before the civil war. The Islamic State captured the oilfields around 2014 and managed to keep the oil flowing, generating a healthy income for the extremists. American forces then beat Russia to the oilfields in 2017. The infrastructure was damaged but the local Kurdish allies managed to keep the oil field producing and earn its consequential revenue, often by selling to the Assad regime.
In 2019, President Donald Trump drew down all but 900 troops, explaining to his constituents that he couldn’t bring all the boys home because the U.S. needed “to secure the oil.” The U.S. has had an embargo on Syrian oil in place since 2011 but in 202o the American company Desert Crescent Energy was granted an exemption from the sanctions to exploit the oil field—again, to ensure that neither Assad nor Russia could benefit from the petroleum.
The winter of 2021-2022 marked another slide into destitution for most of the country. Fuel was in such short supply that many resorted to burning trash in their homes. Since then, the country has only inched closer to the precipice of starvation and hypothermia, according to Kiely.
Kiely is neither a military nor a foreign policy expert but rather a UK-based Catholic priest and the founder of Nasarean.org, a charity that assists Christians in the Middle East with the goal of helping them to remain in their beloved homeland. He is in close contact with ordinary people in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and travels to places in the Middle East regularly.
He is also constantly, and sadly, amazed by how forgetful, if not ignorant, Westerners are about the plight of the region.
“The situation in Syria is appalling. If anything, things are worse in Syria,” Kiely said of the present situation. “Everyone is short of everything.”
In another example of the deterioration, cholera outbreaks started at the end of 2022.
It is the bomb of poverty hurled at the country by economic sanctions imposed by the West, Kiely says, referring to comments late last year by the papal nuncio, Cardinal Mario Zenari. Zenari did not explicitly mention sanctions but compared the poverty in the country to bombs and warned that hope was dying in the country. Earlier in 2023, the three patriarchs of Damascus explicitly called for the end of sanctions against the country.
“Some say the patriarchs are in league with the regime,” Kiely said. “But they are not; they are thinking of the people. They are the ones suffering from the sanctions”—sanctions that the EU renewed in May 2022. Sanctions are not only a question of oil, but of Syria having access to all kinds of other markets and goods as well.
Now, as migrants and asylum seekers again pile up at Europe’s land and sea borders, it’s a sobering reminder of the chain effects of geopolitics.
In Iraq, torn apart by the U.S. invasion in which some European countries also participated, the Christian population has dropped from 1.5 million to around 200,000 or even fewer, Kiely said, citing statistics from the Catholic Church in the country. The Church, he reported, is working on the estimate that there will eventually be only 50,000. Christians have left, along with millions and millions of other Iraqis.
“They went to the countries that would take them—Canada, Australia, Sweden,” he said.
Now it’s Lebanon suffering a mass exodus from a failed state and economic collapse.
“The same thing is happening in Lebanon. Everyone is leaving,” Kiely said.
“The Middle East is imploding. At some point there has to be a solution,” he insists, to the ultimately destructive interference in these countries by the West and other nations.
The destruction of these countries is directly linked to the large influx into Europe of various African immigrants and refugees in the last decade, which has on some level, been problematic for European countries. Not only have millions of Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, and Pakistanis been seeking to rebuild their lives in Europe, but the three failed states of Lebanon, Syria, and Libya had once happily hosted many people from sub-Saharan Africa. Now, that is impossible, pushing more sub-Saharans to make their way to Europe.
It seems likely that not only the U.S. but also Europe is determined to stay its disastrous foreign policy course in the region. Besides renewing sanctions against Syria in May of 2022, the EU has even considered putting boots on the ground in Libya, according to a document seen by Politico. Similar to Syria, Libya holds resources that Europe desperately wants while also being a stage for the rivalry, if not proxy war, between Russia and the West and a launching-off point for migrants to cross the Mediterranean.
In February, Italy’s energy giant Eni and Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC) signed an $8 billion investment deal to explore undersea gas fields principally for export to Europe, under the approving eyes of Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni and Fayez al-Sarraj, leader of the UN-recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
But Libya is still not entirely at peace following the NATO-backed ousting of autocrat Muammar Gadhafi in 2011. Despite a supposed ceasefire, violence erupted in Tripoli in August 2022 between rivals for control of the country, while European countries, Russia, and Turkey, all have a hand in Libya, with their interests often at odds.
With the world’s attention having moved to Ukraine, it’s easy to forget the drama playing out in the Middle East and northern Africa, the suffering of the people who live there, and the stage it sets for important European issues from immigration to energy.
Kiely visited Beirut last June, and before he left was telling a person he had thought to be well-informed about his upcoming trip. The man wished Kiely a happy vacation, which surprised the priest because most of the country doesn’t even have electricity anymore and even the capital only has it for an hour a day.
You can’t solve a problem you don’t acknowledge.