Even as United States troops make a hasty and chaotic withdrawal from northeastern Syria, the US is considering a plan to leave some forces behind to secure oilfields in the region and make sure they do not fall into the hands of a resurgent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL group), US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said.
The Pentagon chief said on Monday, however, that the options were still being discussed and had not yet been presented to US President Donald Trump.
Esper emphasised that the proposal to leave a small number of troops in eastern Syria was intended to give the president “manoeuvre room” but was not yet a final decision.
“There has been a discussion about possibly doing it,” Esper told a news conference in Afghanistan before going to Saudi Arabia. “There has been no decision with regard to numbers or anything like that.”
Still, the fact that such a plan was under consideration was another sign the Trump administration was still in the process of sorting out its overall strategy, amid fierce criticism by the president’s Republican allies of his abrupt decision to pull US forces back.
The unexpected move by Washington essentially cleared the way for Turkey to enter into the border region and push back US-allied Kurdish forces.
A White House official said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham raised the issue of keeping US forces in eastern Syria to protect the oilfields, and added that Trump supported the idea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal decision-making.
Esper said the main goal would be to make sure ISIL does not gain control of the oilfields and the revenue they generate.
The defence secretary said US troops around Kobani are withdrawing and that the US is maintaining combat air patrol over US forces in Syria as the withdrawal goes on.
He also said the US is using overhead surveillance to try to monitor the recently negotiated ceasefire “as best we can”.
While Trump has insisted that he’s bringing home US soldiers from “endless wars” in the Middle East, Esper said all US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq, as the US military will continue operations against ISIL.
The troops are not actually coming home and the US will not leave the turbulent Middle East, according to plans outlined by Esper before he arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday.
The fight in Syria against ISIL – once spearheaded by Syrian Democratic Forces who have been cast aside by Trump – will still be undertaken by US forces, including those in neighbouring Iraq.
Esper did not rule out the idea that US forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. He told reporters travelling with him that those details will be worked out over time.
The US president declared this past week that Washington had no stake in defending the Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as US partners fighting in Syria against the ISIL group. Turkey conducted a weeklong offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish fighters before a military pause.
Trump nonetheless tweeted: “USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!”
“It’s time for us to come home,” Trump said, defending his removal of US troops from that part of Syria and praising his decision to send more troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend itself against Iran.
Esper’s earlier comments to reporters travelling with him were the first to lay out where US troops will go as they shift from Syria and what the counter-ISIL fight could look like. Esper said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift about 1,000 troops from Syria.
When asked about the fact that the troops were not coming home as the president claimed they would, Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said, “Well, they will eventually”.
Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 US troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to go into Syria and push back Kurdish forces that Turkey considers “terrorists”.
The pullout largely abandons Kurdish allies of the US who have fought ISIL alongside US troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 US troops will remain at the Syrian outpost of al-Tanf near the border with Jordan and Iraq.
The US still has more than 5,000 forces in Iraq, under an agreement between the two countries. The US pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after ISIL began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014.
The number of US forces in Iraq has remained small due to political sensitivities in the country, after years of what many Iraqis consider US occupation during the war that began in 2003.