The United States will bolster its forces currently protecting oil fields and facilities in eastern Syria from the Islamic State terror group, even as most of its troops are being pulled from the country.
“We are now taking some actions; I’m not going to get into the details, to strengthen our position at Deir el-Zour, to ensure we can deny ISIS access to the oil fields," U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Friday, using an acronym for the group. He spoke following a series of meetings with NATO allies in Brussels.
“We want to make sure that they don't have access to the resources that may allow them to strike within the region, to strike Europe, to strike the United States,” he said. “It will include some mechanized forces.”
The U.S. had been keeping about 1,000 special forces in northeastern Syria, working extensively with the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, as part of the U.S.-led effort to deal a lasting defeat to IS.
Since the liberation of the last scrap of IS-held territory in March, the U.S. and SDF had focused on clearing out remaining IS sleeper cells and on preventing an insurgency; but, earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces just ahead of an incursion by Turkey aimed at clearing the border region of Kurdish fighters, whom Ankara views as terrorists.
“Our soldiers have left and are leaving Syria for other places, then...COMING HOME!” Trump said in a series of tweets Friday, barely half an hour before Esper spoke.
“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!”
The statements Friday reflect the mixed messaging on U.S. intentions regarding Syria that has been coming from Washington this week.
On Wednesday, while hailing the success of a U.S.-brokered deal to stop the fighting between Turkey, a NATO ally, and the Kurdish forces which had been aiding the U.S. in the fight against IS, Trump said that the U.S. was “getting out.”
“Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand," he said, adding later that the U.S. would secure the oil fields before “deciding what we are going to do with it in the future.”
In a series of tweets Thursday, Trump emphasized the importance he placed on the oil fields.
“We will NEVER let a reconstituted ISIS have those fields!” Trump tweeted, adding, “Perhaps it is time for the Kurds to start heading to the Oil Region!”
A U.S. defense official late Thursday confirmed the U.S. was working to reinforce the position of U.S. troops still in Syria and was doing so “in coordination with our SDF [Syrian Democratic Force] partners, in northeast Syria.”
Many Kurdish leaders have criticized the U.S., some accusing Washington of betraying them by allowing Turkish forces to move against them. But despite the hard feelings, SDF Commander Gen. Mazloum Abdi has indicated he is open to continuing to work with the U.S. and U.S. forces in the region.
Asked about the U.S. strategy in Syria, Esper told reporters Friday it has been consistent.
“It's always been about defeating the ISIS coalition,” he said. “The specific measures we are taking with regard to the reduction of oilfields is to deny ISIS access to those resources."
The defense secretary went on to say, “If ISIS has access to the resources and therefore the means to procure arms or to buy fighters or whatever else they do then that means it makes it more difficult to defeat ISIS.”
Islamic State took control of the eastern Syrian oil fields in 2014 and held on to them until the U.S.-led coalition captured them in 2016. In the interim, analysts estimate the terror group pocketed a total of about $750 million from sales.
Officials and analysts doubt IS, which has been reorganizing itself as an insurgency, would try to grab control of the fields; but, they say it could find other ways to use them to their advantage.
Will IS resurge?
There have been concerns that the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria has helped strengthen IS by giving some of the terror group’s captured fighters a chance to escape from a series of more than 30 makeshift prisons guarded by the SDF.
Esper said both the SDF and Turkish officials have assured him the IS prisoners are under lock and key, and that Turkey has been hunting down those who managed to get free.
“They've been able to recollect some of them,” Esper said.