US to Send 'Military Assets' to Protect Syrian Oil Fields

U.S. military planners are backing President Donald Trump’s calls to protect oil fields in Syria, both from the Islamic State terror group and other potential adversaries, and are preparing to send more equipment to make it happen.

A defense official said late Thursday 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,” and that the effort would include sending additional “military assets” to the region.

“One of the most significant gains by the U.S. and our partners in the fight against ISIS was gaining control of oil fields in Eastern Syria,” the official said, using an acronym for the terror group. “We must deny ISIS this revenue stream to ensure there's no resurgence.”

The official declined to share specifics, but Newsweek and CNN reported that the Pentagon was considering the use of tanks or light armored vehicles.

U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper waits for the start of a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 24, 2019.

US troops

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in Brussels for meetings with Washington’s NATO allies, said earlier this week that while some U.S. troops had already left Syria, others had been positioned in towns or villages in order to provide some protection for the facilities.

Word that the U.S. is planning to send additional resources to the country came just hours after President Donald Trump took to social media to emphasize the importance he placed on the oil fields.

“We will NEVER let a reconstituted ISIS have those fields!” Trump tweeted, adding in a second Tweet, “Perhaps it is time for the Kurds to start heading to the Oil Region!”

The move has already won the support of some of the president’s key allies in Congress.

“I am somewhat encouraged that a plan is coming that will meet our core objectives in Syria,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters following a meeting with defense officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley.

The plan “may give us what we need to prevent ISIS from coming back, Iran taking the oil, ISIS from taking the oil,” Graham said, while refusing to share additional details.

The intent to send more equipment, and potentially additional troops, to Syria comes as the Pentagon has been executing what officials have described as a “deliberate withdrawal” of about 1,000 troops that have been operating across northeastern Syria, often working with the mainly Kurdish SDF to fight IS.

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, Oct. 23, 2019.

But Trump Wednesday announced that the U.S. was “getting out” of Syria after brokering a cease-fire between the SDF and Turkey, which regards many of the SDF fighters as terrorists and had targeted them as part of its recent incursion into Syria.

“We have done them a great service,” the president said during a White House announcement Wednesday. "Now we're getting out. ... Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand."

Still, Trump said the oil fields would remain a priority.

"We're going to be protecting it and will be deciding what we are going to do with it in the future,” he said.

Eastern Syria oil fields

IS 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 the group’s advantage.

“In the mid-2000s, ISIS’s predecessor group, the Islamic State of Iraq, hijacked oil tankers,” said Rand senior economist Howard Shatz, who has studied the group’s finances. “Today in Syria, if oil leaves the northeast oilfields by truck and there is limited coalition or SDF control of roads, ISIS could repeat this.”

FILE - An American soldier sits on a military vehicle, at al-Omar oil field in Deir Al Zor, Syria, March 23, 2019.

In addition to a small contingent of U.S. troops, the formerly U.S.-backed SDF is also in the area and currently controls production.

Questions about exactly how cooperation between the U.S. and SDF would proceed, especially after many SDF leaders accused Washington of abandoning them to Turkish forces, remain unclear.

As U.S. troops withdrew and Turkish forces advanced, the SDF agreed to cooperate with both the Syrian regime and Russian forces, both of which are U.S. adversaries.

Still, SDF Commander General Mazloum Abid said Wednesday and Thursday that he is interested in continuing to work with the U.S.

Talk of how to protect the oil fields, however, threatened to overshadow Kurdish complaints that Turkey, along with Turkish-backed militias, was actively violating both U.S.- and Russian-brokered agreements to end the fighting.
"Turkish army have been attacking villages of Assadiya, Mishrafa and Manajer, with a large number of mercenaries and all kinds of heavy weapons despite the truce," SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali tweeted. "SDF will exercise its right to legitimate self-defense, and we are not responsible for the violation of the agreement."
'Hold violators to account'

Bali called on all parties, "especially the U.S., to monitor the implementation of the cease-fire agreement that they brokered and hold violators to account."

Turkish officials, though, insisted they were acting within its rights.

"Turkey reserves its right of self-defense against terrorist elements that may have remained in the Operation Peace Spring area," Turkey's U.N. Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting at his presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 24, 2019.

"As President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan emphasized on multiple occasions, Turkey cannot and will not tolerate any terrorist activity at its borders," the envoy added. "Terror organizations may take different names or forms, they may adopt different strategies, but our vigilance in the face of terror will remain the same."

To date, officials with the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria estimate at least 250 men, women and children have been killed since Turkey launched its incursion following the withdrawal October 6 of U.S. special forces from near the Turkish-Syrian border.

Another 300 have gone missing, and there have been allegations that dozens more have been injured as a result of the use of white phosphorus or chemical weapons – a charge Turkish officials vehemently deny.

VOA's United Nations correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

by via Voice of America - English