Having finally seen this thought-provoking film and understood much but by no means all of it, I’m providing a fairly complete story synopsis that might serve to clarify things a bit. I really recommend seeing the film first, as it was quite good (and in storytelling somewhat similar to _Traffic_).
Syriana is a complex and layered film that in the end is concerned with only one thing: examining the political and human consequences of the oil trade. Early on, we meet Bob Barnes, a CIA agent who performs his duties without question or complaint in the service of his country, even though it has cost him his relationships with his wife and son. Bob is involved in an arms deal that goes wrong when one of the two shoulder-mounted missile launchers disappears into the arms of a mysterious blue-eyed Egyptian rather than blowing up and killing the targeted terrorists.
The heir to a fictitious Persian Gulf country (Prince Nasir) has let a contract with American oil giant Connex lapse and signed a new deal for oil drilling rights with a Chinese company for more money. Nasir is an Oxford-educated, reform-minded leader who, when he becomes Emir, hopes to transform his country and raise the standard of living, rather than simply keeping the oil profits for himself and his friends.
With Connex out of the picture, the new Chinese owners lay off all of the oil field workers, who, without visas, are treated as second-class citizens and will be deported if they cannot find new jobs. These circumstances lead directly to the radicalization of two young Pakistani migrant workers, Wasim and Farooq, who find a place of refuge and dignity at a madrassa (Islamic school), where they are befriended by the mysterious blue-eyed Egyptian, who is a cleric.
Killen, a smaller Texas oil outfit, manages to secure the drilling rights to Kazakhstan, a hotly contested property. Connex plans to merge with Killen so that it can remain competitive, having just lost some of its major assets to the Chinese. Dean Whiting, head of the prestigious Sloan Whiting law firm in DC and a major player in the oil industry, sends up-and-coming lawyer Bennett Holiday to investigate the deal, supervised by Connex’s Washington counsel, Sydney Hewitt. Whiting soon realizes that, in order for the merger to go through, he needs to find a scapegoat to be prosecuted by the Justice Department for whatever shady dealings had to take place so that Killen could win the Kazakhstan deal. He soon fingers someone in the organization, but the Justice investigator, Holiday’s former law school professor, tells him that it isn’t enough, and he needs someone bigger.
Barnes, the CIA agent, has begun writing memos that draw attention to the missing missile, a circumstance his CIA bosses would rather be kept quiet. They promise him a cushy office job for his last few years before retirement, which is going well until Bob says the wrong things to a Washington lobbying group called the Committee to Liberate Iran, of which the CEO of Connex is a prominent member.
Wanting to get back in the field, Bob Barnes is given the assignment to arrange for the assassination of Prince Nasir, the heir-apparent responsible for the China deal. However, Bob’s contact in the country, who has switched sides and now works for the Iranians, turns on him and he ends up being the one captured and then tortured for information about the CIA.
With Barnes’s cover blown and the plot to kill Nasir exposed, the CIA sets Bob up as a scapegoat. This leads Bob to start questioning his employers and to discover that he was being used to further US oil interests abroad.
Meanwhile, small-time energy analyst Bryan Woodman, through a set of tragic circumstances involving his son’s death, has ended up in the employ of Prince Nasir. He sees from up-close as the Americans pressure Nasir’s ailing father, the emir, to nullify the China contract Nasir brokered. The Emir chooses to make Nasir’s younger brother his new heir, and the brother flies off to party in style with the Texas power brokers in DC.
Attorney Bennitt Holiday has found his bigger scapegoat in his own boss, Sydney Hewitt, whom he reveals to the Connex CEO. His promotion is all but assured. Prince Nasir has been conspiring with reform-minded generals in his country to seize power from his brother, and has been rallying the support of the people. Wasim and Farooq, the laid-off oil field workers, have accepted their quest, pushed upon them by the missile-wielding blue-eyed Egyptian, to commit jihad and reach a better life free of suffering. And Bob Barnes, the spooked spook, has decided to subvert the CIA and save the life of Prince Nasir.
As Holiday, the CEO of Killen, Nasir’s younger brother, and the various power brokers sit at a dinner honoring Connex’s CEO as oil man of the year, CIA agents sit watching satellite reconnaissance and planning to destroy Nasir’s convoy with a strategic missile. Bob Barnes comes driving across the desert to warn the prince, but just as he arrives and stops the convoy, the CIA strikes and Nasir, along with Barnes, is killed. Not long later, a huge Connex tanker ship is departing from the Persian Gulf facility once again controlled by Connex Killen, when Wasim and Farooq, having learned how to turn the American missile into a powerful shaped charge, ram the huge tanker with their small fishing boat, exploding their charge and causing untold destruction.
Left alive out in the desert convoy that once carried Prince Nasir is the energy analyst, Bryan Woodman. His dreams of changing the Middle East (and making tons of money) dashed, Woodman returns home to the States to reconnect with his grieving wife and one remaining son.
Meanwhile, the world continues to turn and the very dirty business of fueling America’s insatiable appetite for oil continues to move forward.