The United States will repel any attempt to take Syria’s oilfields away with “overwhelming force” whether the challenger is Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) or forces backed by Russia or Syria, the Pentagon has warned.
The US military announced last week it was reinforcing its position in Syria with additional assets, including mechanised forces, to prevent oilfields from being taken over by ISIL remnants or other armed groups.
US defence chief Mark Esper offered some of his most detailed remarks to date about the mission at a news briefing on Monday.
“US troops will remain positioned in this strategic area to deny ISIS access those vital resources. And we will respond with overwhelming military force against any group that threatens the safety of our forces there,” Esper told reporters.
Pressed on whether the US military mission included denying any Russian or Syrian government forces access to the oilfields, Esper said: “The short answer is yes, it presently does.”
He noted the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) relied on that oil income to fund its fighters, including the ones guarding prisons that hold captured ISIL soldiers.
“We want to make sure that SDF does have access to resources in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat-ISIS mission,” he said.
“So that’s our mission, to secure the oilfields.”
President Donald Trump recently proposed hiring an American oil company to begin repairing Syria’s oil infrastructure, which has been devastated by years of war. Repeated US air strikes against facilities for oil storage, transport, processing and refining starting in 2015 inflicted heavy damage.
Esper said last week that a “mechanised” force would reinforce US positions in the oil region, meaning a force equipped with tanks or Bradley infantry carriers. On Monday he provided no details about the makeup of the force.
He referred to “multiple state and non-state” forces vying for control of Syrian territory and resources, including the oil. He said while the main US military mission is to ensure the “enduring defeat” of ISIL, that now will include denying oil income for the group.
“The United States will retain control of oil fields in northeast Syria,” Esper said, adding at the height of now-deceased ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s rule, those oil fields provided the bulk of his group’s income.
Esper’s remarks echoed Trump’s focus on the oil in Syria.
“We’re keeping the oil,” Trump said during a speech in Chicago. “Remember that, I’ve always said that. Keep the oil. We want to keep the oil – $45m a month – keep the oil. We’ve secured the oil.”
The area has been the scene of unusual confrontations with US forces, such as a one-sided battle in February 2018 in which a pro-Syrian government force – reported to be mainly private Russian mercenaries – unleashed an artillery barrage near a small US military outpost.
As then-defence chief James Mattis recounted the episode in congressional testimony two months later, he ordered the attacking force to be “annihilated – and it was after Russian authorities insisted the attackers were not their troops.
Esper said on Monday he has seen no sign of Syrian or Russian forces challenging US control of the oilfields.
In recent days, however, US officials detected what they considered to be a significant massing of Syrian and Russian forces on the western side of the Euphrates River near Deir Az Zor, a US official said.
Russian officials were contacted by phone, and the US was given assurances the staged forces would not move east, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.