The United States will send armoured vehicles and combat troops into eastern Syria to keep oilfields from potentially falling into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.
It was the latest sign that extracting the military from Syria is more uncertain and complicated than President Donald Trump is making it out to be. Though Trump has repeatedly said he is pulling out of Syria, the reality on the ground is different.
Adding armoured reinforcements in the oil-producing area of Syria could mean sending several hundred US troops – even as a similar number are being withdrawn from a separate mission closer to the border with Turkey where Russian forces have been filling the vacuum.
On Friday, Esper described the added force as “mechanised”, which means it likely will include armoured vehicles such as Bradley armoured infantry carriers and possibly tanks, although details were still to be worked out. This reinforcement would introduce a new dimension to the US military presence, which largely has been comprised of special operations forces not equipped with tanks or other armoured vehicles.
Esper spoke at a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he consulted with American allies.
Sending an armoured force to eastern Syria would partially reverse the ongoing shrinkage of the US troops’ presence in Syria. Trump has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all 1,000 US troops who had been partnering with a Syrian Kurdish-led militia against the ISIL group.
That withdrawal is proceeding even as Esper announced the plan to put reinforcements in the oil-producing area.
‘Doing well in Syria’
Speaking to reporters on Friday at the White House, Trump said the US-brokered agreement with Turkey to halt its offensive against US-supporting Syrian Kurdish fighters was a win for his administration. That offensive began after Trump announced US troops would not stand in the way, though he also said the US would punish Turkey’s economy if the country acted inhumanely.
He also said anew on Friday that “we’re getting our troops out” of Syria, without mentioning Esper’s announcement.
“We are doing well in Syria, with Turkey and everybody else that we’re dealing with,” Trump said. “We have secured the oil … We have a couple of people that came knocking, we said don’t knock. And I think I would say that things are going very well.”
White House officials would not clarify whom he was referring to as “knocking”.
The US special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said in Geneva on Friday he had talked to a Russian official about an unspecified issue in Syria’s oil region.
“We are currently very concerned about certain developments in the south, in the Deir Az Zor area,” Jeffrey said. “I’ve talked to my Russian colleague about that and we’re having other contacts with the Russians concerning that situation. We think it is under control now.”
Although Esper did not mention the size of the US reinforcements, it could total several hundred troops because fuel-guzzling tanks and other armoured vehicles depend on a large supply and logistical support group.
One official, who discussed the planning on condition of anonymity because some details remained to be agreed, cautioned that tanks might eventually be eliminated from the mix because of logistical challenges, including air transport.
Russian and Turkish leaders have now divided up security roles in northeast Syria following Trump’s abrupt troops’ withdrawal from the Turkey-Syria border region. The American move triggered widespread criticism that the US administration had abandoned the Syrian Kurdish fighters who fought alongside the US against ISIL for several years.
‘Oil is secured’
Esper’s announcement came even as Trump again indicated in tweets that the US military mission in Syria is complete. He previously has acknowledged a willingness to help protect the oilfields in eastern Syria, suggesting they could benefit the Kurds as well as the US, although those resources belong to the Syrian government.
“Oil is secured,” Trump tweeted on Friday. “Our soldiers have left and are leaving Syria for other places, then…. COMING HOME! … When these pundit fools who have called the Middle East wrong for 20 years ask what we are getting out of the deal, I simply say, THE OIL, AND WE ARE BRINGING OUR SOLDIERS BACK HOME, ISIS SECURED!”
Asked about the US’s shifting Syria strategy, Esper said its mission has always been to prevent the resurgence of ISIL.
“That mission remains unchanged,” he said.
But Esper said at NATO that the US is “considering how we might reposition forces in the area in order to ensure we secure the oil field”. He added: “We are reinforcing that position. It will include some mechanized forces.”
He made clear the main purpose is to prevent the ISIL from regaining access to Syrian oil, which prior to 2017 was a major source of its revenue.
Starting in late 2015 and continuing for many months, the US conducted air raids against a range of oil resources in the Deir Az Zor province that had been taken over by the ISIL.
The attacks damaged or knocked out oil tanker convoys, oil processing plants, storage facilities, pumping stations, pipelines and refineries. It was called Operation Tidal Wave II, after a World War II air campaign to hit Romania’s oil industry.
Esper said ISIL must not be allowed to again threaten the oil.
“If ISIS has access to the resources, and therefore the means to procure arms or to buy fighters or whatever else they do, then it means it makes it more difficult to defeat ISIS,” he said.
Just last week, Trump insisted that all American forces in Syria would return. Then he said the 1,000 troops in the north would return home and that American soldiers in the south, numbering about 200 at the Al-Tanf garrison in the south, would stay.
Trump in the last few days has turned a greater focus on the Syrian oil facilities in the eastern part of the country, saying the US will stay in Syria to protect them.
According to officials, top military leaders have pushed for the US to leave forces in Syria to guard against an ISIL resurgence. While the group’s physical zone of control was largely destroyed by US and Syrian Kurdish forces, armed rebels remain in small pockets throughout the country and in Iraq.