Some U.S. military forces could remain in eastern Syria to secure oil fields controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Monday, October 21.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. forces from the Syria-Turkey border area where they had operated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main U.S. partner on the ground in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.
Since ordering the withdrawal, Trump has repeatedly said that U.S. forces have “secured the oil” in northeast Syria.
Speaking to reporters in Kabul, where he visited troops on Monday, Esper said U.S. forces stationed with the SDF near the oil fields were not part of the current withdrawal, and there were discussions about leaving some there.
“We presently have troops in a couple of cities … right near that area, the purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue to ISIS and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities,” Reuters reported Esper as saying.
“There has been a discussion about possibly [leaving some troops], there has been no decision with regard to numbers or anything like that,” he said.
It was unclear whether Esper was referring to the Omar fields or those further to the north.
Senator Lindsay Graham – the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of Trump’s biggest supporters who has nonetheless criticized the withdrawal – said Sunday that he believed the U.S. was on the verge of a “joint venture” with the SDF for control of the oil fields.
Such an agreement would keep oil revenue from falling into the hands of Iran, ISIS or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Graham said.
Esper said on Sunday that the removal of American forces to western Iraq would make place over “weeks,” not days, but American troops have left Syria en masse over the last week. On Sunday, a CJTF-OIR spokesperson told The Defense Post that troops had pulled out of installations in and around Manbij, Raqqa, Tabqa, and the Lafarge Cement Factory.
The troops who will remain in Syria are in addition to the 150 who will stay at the southern Tanf base where they operate alongside the last Vetted Syrian Opposition group, Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces opened the way for Turkey to launch Operation Peace Spring on October 9 with Syrian rebel groups operating under the banner of the Syrian National Army. The SDF pulled back from the border town of Ras al-Ayn on Sunday during a 120-hour ceasefire brokered by Vice President Mike Pence during a visit to Ankara.