Report

U.S. Plan to Guard Syrian Oil Fields Sows Confusion

Officials and experts say the proposal may be a way to sell Trump on keeping a residual force in Syria.

A soldier wearing a Kurdish Women's Protection Units badge sits on top of a U.S. military vehicle on a road in the town of Tal Tamr, Syria, on Oct. 20.
A soldier wearing a Kurdish Women's Protection Units badge sits on top of a U.S. military vehicle on a road in the town of Tal Tamr, Syria, on Oct. 20. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday confirmed that President Donald Trump’s administration is considering maintaining a small force of U.S. troops in northeastern Syria near Kurdish-controlled oil fields, a risky proposal that caught many officials off guard after the president spent the last two weeks insisting that all U.S. forces in the area would return home. 

Since Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the border with Syria on Oct. 6, paving the way for a violent Turkish incursion that has killed scores of Kurdish fighters and civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents, top Pentagon officials have pushed to leave a residual force of a few hundred troops in northeastern Syria to fight the Islamic State and maintain a relationship with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a senior U.S. administration official told Foreign Policy. Under the proposal, airstrikes against the militant group in Syria would continue from Iraq, the official said. 

Originally, the internal Pentagon plan did not include any stipulations about U.S. troops guarding the oil fields in Kurdish-held territory, the official noted. Framing the proposal as a way to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from controlling the oil was likely a way to make it more appealing to Trump, who has been pushing for troop withdrawals all year. 

“That is probably to play POTUS,” the official said. 

Trump late last week started tweeting about “securing the oil” in northern Syria, sowing confusion among analysts trying to sort out the consequences of the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from the country and abandonment of its former Kurdish allies. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham floated a similar idea over the weekend—that residual U.S. troops in Syria might serve to protect some oil fields, if not their former allies.

On Monday, Esper made clearer what the president might have been referring to—even though the defense secretary said the plan was not yet finalized and he had not presented it to the president. 

In his comments, made during a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday, Esper suggested that such a mission would both help the United States keep tabs on Islamic State terrorists as they seek to regroup and help keep Kurdish oil fields out of enemy hands. But it wasn’t immediately clear if the United States was seeking to prevent the Islamic State, Assad, Russia, or even Iran from snapping up the energy resources.

Experts also noted that keeping just a few hundred U.S. forces in Syria when facing a multitude of threats is “incredibly risky” and likely to be ineffective. 

“It is hard to conceive of how such a small force presence will continue the D-ISIS [Defeat ISIS] mission, when they may have to spend most of their time protecting themselves from adversaries,” said Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

Stroul also noted that the plan could face some congressional backlash, as lawmakers have not authorized the U.S. military to protect oil in Syria. 

Many believe the Pentagon plan is a way to keep at least a token U.S. presence in the region after Trump’s high-profile—and increasingly criticized—withdrawal from Syria, announced this month. Maintaining U.S. troops on the ground to keep valuable oil out of the hands of the Islamic State might be a way to sell Trump on the idea of a residual force when he repeatedly says he wants to “bring the troops home,” experts say. 

Trump has for years been averse to a U.S. military presence in the Middle East—except, it seems, when it comes to protecting oil. He repeatedly said the United States should have seized Iraqi oil after the 2003 invasion, and he just dispatched several thousand more troops to help protect Saudi Arabia, the biggest oil producer in OPEC. Couching a continued U.S. fight against terrorists as part of a way to protect oil fields (and keep oil prices low) could be a way to sidestep Trump’s once-thwarted desire to wash his hands of the entire Syrian campaign.

“It’s possible that maintaining a U.S. presence near the oil fields can provide cover for continued counterterrorism missions in Syria, keeping a small footprint in Syria per Trump’s wishes,” said Michael Sharnoff, an associate professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.

But the contours of the proposed Pentagon mission are yet to be defined—and still confusing. 

Esper suggested that, for at least a few more weeks, U.S. troops would remain around oil fields in northeastern Syria, purportedly to keep the Islamic State from using oil revenues to rebuild its war chest.

“We have troops … that are located next to the oil fields. The troops in those towns are not in the present phase of withdrawal,” Esper said. “A purpose of those forces, working with the SDF, is to deny access to those oil fields by ISIS and others who may benefit from revenues that could be earned.”

But those fields are already in Kurdish hands and don’t appear to be threatened, noted Matthew Reed, the vice president at the energy consultancy Foreign Reports. And the oil fields that the Islamic State famously used to bankroll its operations during the heyday of its so-called caliphate were in a different part of Syria and have largely been destroyed during years of fighting. 

Assad may want to recover those fields, despite their minimal value at present, and U.S. troops stationed near any of the eastern fields could act as a deterrent—though it’s not clear just where U.S. troops will be, for how long, and with what mission. The troops could be a deterrent to Assad “only if Americans are in the vicinity, and some reports suggest the U.S. might keep its distance and act in a support role,” Reed said. 

For the Kurds, a handful of U.S. troops remaining in northern Syria may not help much. The U.S. military can provide air support against Islamic State militants but will not help defend the Kurds from Turkish airstrikes. The Russians are not likely to agree to provide air cover for the Kurds against Turkey if the U.S. military stays, said one Kurdish advisor to the Syrian Democratic Council. 

“Unless they show real assurances, the 200 soldiers will entangle the Kurds with more troubles,” the advisor said. 

In any event, leaving some U.S. troops behind to work alongside Kurdish-led SDF forces to keep the oil out of the hands of the Islamic State or Assad could be a heavy lift after the sense of betrayal the Kurds have shown this week. 

“If the SDF perceives that the U.S. will abandon them in favor of Turkey or other interests, the SDF may hedge their bets by distancing themselves from the U.S. and aligning with the Assad regime, which has declared that it will ultimately reconquer all of Syrian territory,” including those oil fields in the east, Sharnoff said.

Meanwhile, the majority of U.S. troops leaving Syria will be “temporarily repositioned” elsewhere in the region before coming home, according to Col. Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the coalition to defeat the Islamic State. Those troops will be focused on fighting the militant group, he said.

Esper on Monday seemed to walk back comments that the majority of the troops coming from Syria will be sent to Iraq, noting on Twitter that they will be repositioned “in the region outside Syria until they return home.” But the senior U.S. administration official confirmed that the troops will be sent to Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the fighting between the Kurds and Turkish-backed forces in the border region seems to have eased, if not ceased entirely. A medical convoy and a U.S. humanitarian group were finally able over the weekend to enter Ras al-Ain to evacuate injured civilians, after they were blocked for several days by gunfire from Turkish proxies. Of the victims, nine had severe burns from what appears to be white phosphorous, an official with the Kurdish Red Crescent said on Monday. 

But fighting still continues between the two groups. The U.S. humanitarian group, the Free Burma Rangers, took “heavy machine gun fire” as it was trying to evacuate wounded SDF fighters on Monday just over 2 miles south of Ras al-Ain, according to David Eubank, the group’s leader. 

“There is no cease-fire here,” Eubank said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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