The United States has drawn up a plan to send troops and tanks to guard Syria’s eastern oil fields amid a withdrawal from the country’s north, Newsweek has learned.
A senior Pentagon official told Newsweek Wednesday that the United States is seeking—pending White House approval—to deploy half of an Army armored brigade combat team battalion that includes as many as 30 Abrams tanks alongside personnel to eastern Syria, where lucrative oil fields are under the control of a mostly Kurdish force involved in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The Pentagon-backed militia, called the Syrian Democratic Forces and dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), will continue to be involved in securing these oil fields, the official said.
The news comes as other U.S. troops exited territories elsewhere under Syrian Democratic Forces control, where NATO ally Turkey sought to neutralize YPG influence using allied Syrian insurgents. The Turkish operation was halted, however, by a U.S. deal limiting the incursion to a roughly 20-mile “safe zone”—a move President Donald Trump credited with saving “thousands” as he fulfilled his desire to remove U.S. soldiers from the war-torn country at the same time.
The president did, however, suggest Wednesday he would keep troops in the small southwestern garrison of Al-Tanf, as well as across crucial oil fields once seized by Syrian insurgents and, later ISIS, before being claimed by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
“We’ve secured the oil and, therefore, a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area, where they have the oil,” Trump said at the White House. “And we’re going to be protecting it, and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future.”
The U.S. initially joined Turkey in backing the rebels and jihadis trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but later switched its support to the Syrian Democratic Forces as defeating ISIS became a priority. With ISIS largely defeated and Assad empowered by Iran and Russia, the U.S. expanded its mission to limiting its adversaries’ influence in the country.
The official told Newsweek that the new tank deployment would have a combined purpose of keeping ISIS, as well as the Syrian government, Iran and their allied militias away from the eastern oil fields.
I really enjoyed my conversation with General @MazloumAbdi. He appreciates what we have done, and I appreciate what the Kurds have done. Perhaps it is time for the Kurds to start heading to the Oil Region!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 24, 2019
The U.S. has struggled, however, to reconcile differences between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey, which views the YPG as a terrorist organization due to its alleged links to the banned separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). After two cross-border operations that beat back Kurdish influence in northern Syria in recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened a third earlier this month and, after a call with Trump, mobilized troops and allied Syrian rebels to battle the YPG.
Trump chose to swiftly withdraw in a move that initially angered Kurdish fighters in the region and compelled them to strike a deal with the Syrian government in hopes of fending off the invasion. The U.S. condemned Turkey’s decision and struck a five-day ceasefire deal that was ultimately succeeded by a more comprehensive deal reached by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan on Tuesday.
Despite the U.S. pullout, Syrian Democratic Forces commander Mazloum Kobane offered thanks to Trump for his efforts in initially halting the Turkish-led advance and said he “promised to maintain partnership with SDF and long-term support at various spheres.”
Assad, while recently terming his partnership with Kurdish-led forces “a national duty,” has repeatedly dismissed any notions of separatism and the presence of uninvited international forces, vowing to retake all of Syria. Moscow shared this view and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the RIA Novosti outlet Wednesday that all oil fields “should go under the control of the legitimate government.”
Previous reporting has suggested that the Syrian Democratic Forces have entered into arrangements to sell oil to the Syrian government. Asked about the oil situation during a White House press briefing Wednesday, one senior administration official echoed the president in saying that the final fate of these resources was yet to be determined.
“The President has stated that we are going to have a residual force in the region to protect areas that hold the oil fields, as well as the base down at Al-Tanf, in southern Syria. Those are important areas to allow us to constrain the resurgence of ISIS. And there is some artillery benefit, of course, to Kurds and other Democratic Forces being in control of the oil,” the official said.
The Oil Fields discussed in my speech on Turkey/Kurds yesterday were held by ISIS until the United States took them over with the help of the Kurds. We will NEVER let a reconstituted ISIS have those fields!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 24, 2019
“As far as how the oil will be sold and that sort of thing, that’s something that we’ll certainly look into and we’ll monitor going forward. And we’ll keep a close eye on that,” the official continued, adding that “the goal of the administration, the goal of the President—as he made very clear today—is to have all American troops out of Syria, and that’s something that we believe will ultimately happen.”
Contacted by Newsweek, the Pentagon referred to the following comments made Monday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
“We have troops in towns in…northeast Syria that are located next to the oil fields. The troops in those towns are not in the present phase of withdrawal,” Esper told a joint press conference at the Pentagon.
“This withdrawal [of U.S. forces] will take weeks, not days. Until that time, our forces will remain in the towns that are located near the oil fields. The purpose of those forces—a purpose of those forces, working with the SDF, is to deny access to those oil fields by ISIS,” he added.