Pentagon Defends Murky Mission in Syria Oil Fields

The key question is whether U.S. troops have legal authority to fire on Syrian, Russian, or Iranian forces.

Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces attend a funeral in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli
Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces attend a funeral in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli on April 10. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Defense Department officials on Thursday defended the latest deployment of hundreds of infantry troops and armored vehicles to guard rich oil fields in northeastern Syria, arguing that the mission is key to the ongoing campaign to defeat the Islamic State despite questions being raised about its legality and credibility.

At a briefing, officials said that the primary goal of the U.S. military’s continued presence in Syria—to counter the militant group—has not changed, although Defense Secretary Mark Esper has acknowledged the latest deployment is intended to protect the oil fields not just from the Islamic State, but from Russian and Syrian forces as well.

But experts are questioning the credibility of the U.S. mission, particularly after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew forces from the Syria-Turkey border ahead of an Oct. 9 Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria. The move was widely viewed as the United States abandoning its primary ally in the counterterrorism fight in Syria—the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—to be slaughtered by Ankara, which views the SDF as a terrorist threat.

“The actual mission and authority under which our forces are operating in northeastern Syria right now is growing increasingly tenuous,” said Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Following the latest withdrawal and the whiplash of reinserting, by what credibility can we continue to be there?”

The U.S. military has been fighting in Syria under the auspices of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorizes the fight against nonstate militant groups such as the Islamic State or al Qaeda. But after initially pledging to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria on the basis that the Islamic State’s physical caliphate has been defeated, Trump in recent days officially approved an expanded military mission in the country, locking hundreds of additional troops into an operation with murky goals as a multitude of other players jockey for power in the region.

At least half of the original 1,000 U.S. troops who remained in Syria before Turkey’s Oct. 9 incursion have left, and more will continue to withdraw until just a few hundred remain. But at the same time, around 500 additional troops, a number of armored vehicles, and possibly a few tanks have reportedly begun arriving to guard the oil fields in Deir Ezzor to the south. When combined with the troops at the al-Tanf garrison on the border with Jordan, that brings the number of U.S. troops projected to be in Syria to close to 900.

Rear Adm. William D. Byrne Jr., the vice director of the Joint Staff, told reporters during a Thursday briefing that the overarching mission of the U.S. military in Syria is to ensure the lasting defeat of the Islamic State, and the effort to protect the oil fields is a “subordinate task to that mission.” At its peak in 2014, the Islamic State controlled those oil fields, pumping out 45,000 barrels of oil a day and generating millions of dollars in revenue each week.

This revenue stream, which amounted to $500 million a year, was key to funding Islamic State terrorist operations “not just in Syria, not just in the region, but throughout Europe and throughout the world,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman.

One key question is whether U.S. forces will have the legal authority to engage Russian, Syrian, or Iranian forces who may attempt to seize the oil fields. The 2001 AUMF does not give U.S. forces the authorization to fire on state actors such as Russian, Iranian, or Syrian forces unless they are acting in self-defense.

Pentagon officials tiptoed carefully around the issue on Thursday. Byrne said there are “existing deconfliction channels” in place to ensure the various players know where U.S. forces are and prevent clashes. U.S. troops also have guidance on how to “de-escalate the situation” if hostile actors approach. But ultimately, American forces will defend themselves, he stressed.

“Everyone in the region knows where American forces are, we are very clear with anyone in the region in working to deconflict where our forces are,” Hoffman said. “We work to ensure that no one approaches or shows hostile intent to our forces, and if they do our commanders maintain the right of self-defense.”

The question of a confrontation between U.S. troops and Iranian forces has long been an issue at al-Tanf, which sits along a potential Iranian supply route through Iraq to Syria in the southeast part of the country. An incident there in 2017 involving the transport of an Iranian port-a-potty, first reported earlier this year by Foreign Policy, nearly led to a confrontation, underscoring just how quickly even minor events can escalate in this complex environment.

The physical Islamic State caliphate, which in 2014 included much of Iraq and Syria, was defeated in early 2019, but the group remains as an insurgency operating from sleeper cells throughout the region. Denying the group access to the oil revenue stream is a key piece of preventing its resurgence, Hoffman said.

That revenue from the oil will go to the SDF, Hoffman said, not to the United States, as Trump has previously signaled. The SDF will use those funds to strengthen its campaign against the Islamic State, Hoffman said.

But experts question whether the Islamic State in its current diminished form is a true threat to the oil fields—and posit that the true purpose of maintaining a presence in Deir Ezzor is denying Syrian, Russian, and Iranian forces a significant revenue source.

“This region is agricultural and oil rich, and that created leverage with [Syrian leader Bashar al-]Assad and Russia,” Dalton said. “If the actors on the ground maintain control over these resources, that would strengthen their hand in negotiations.”

The presence of U.S. forces in Deir Ezzor and at al-Tanf also serves as a buffer against Iranian influence. U.S. officials have long feared the completion of an Iranian land bridge that stretches across Iraq and Syria to Israel’s border.

The fact that the new deployment includes mechanized forces—Bradley armored vehicles that require a long logistics tail and hundreds of additional troops—is significant because, previously, the U.S. presence in Syria has been limited to a small number of special operations forces and air power. When asked why a mechanized force is needed to fight the Islamic State—a guerrilla force with no aircraft or artillery—Hoffman said commanders requested the additional equipment for “mobility and force protection.”

“Conditions on the ground have changed,” Hoffman said, pointing to the Turkish incursion, which opened the door to Turkish, Russian, and Syrian troops as well as Turkish-backed proxy forces to pour into a region of northeastern Syria that had been relatively calm since the defeat of the Islamic State caliphate earlier this year.

“The commander made a determination that for his mobility and force protection needs to ask for these mechanized forces and that is what the secretary has authorized to be sent to the region.”

Previously, the SDF was primarily responsible for guarding the oil fields. But the militia has in recent weeks been stretched thin defending against the Turkish incursion and no longer has the bandwidth to protect the oil, experts said, explaining the need for a larger U.S. footprint to accomplish the mission.

However, the U.S. presence in Deir Ezzor may complicate the Kurds’ already tenuous position. After the United States withdrew, the Kurds were forced to negotiate a deal with the Syrian regime and its Russian backers for protection against the Turkish invasion. Damascus and Moscow are eagerly eying the potential oil revenue and are not happy with the continued U.S. presence.

“In so far as the coalition continues to ask the Kurds to make that choice—to partner with us versus making deals for their own survival with the Assad regime—it’s going to put them in the crosshairs, as well as our own forces,” Dalton said.

The Kurds fear that Russia, angered by the United States’ continued presence at Deir Ezzor, may open the airspace along the border to the Turks, enabling Turkish airstrikes on the border town of Kobani—much like when in 2018 Moscow allowed Turkey to attack Afrin in northwestern Syria, said one source close to the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the SDF.

“The fact that the U.S. is still in the oil fields and working with the SDF has pros and cons,” the source said. The cons are that “Russia could take a reckless decision,” while the pros are “it gives the US some leverage because Russia and Assad are dying for the oil.”

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

Tag: Syria

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