Trump May Keep Small Force in Eastern Syria, to Check ISIS and Protect Oilfields

Patrick Goodenough | October 21, 2019 | 6:28am EDT
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President Trump is flanked by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley in the Cabinet Room of the White House last week. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

(Update: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday the U.S. was considering leaving some U.S. troops in eastern Syria to ensure oilfields do not fall into the hands of “ISIS and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.” He told reporters in Afghanistan that no decision had been taken “with regard to numbers or anything like that.”)

( – As U.S. troops are being redeployed from Syria to western Iraq, there were indications at the weekend that President Trump may be prepared to leave a residual force across the border in eastern Syria, in a bid to keep a lid on ISIS and help to ensure that oilfields in the area to not fall into hands of the Iranians, whose forces are in Syria to bolster Bashar Assad’s regime.

Hints came on Sunday from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of Trump who has been vocally critical of his recent troop pullout decisions in the face of a Turkish assault on Syrian Kurdish forces who were allies with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

In a marked change of tone, Graham told Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” that he was “increasingly optimistic that we can have some historic solutions in Syria that have eluded us for years, if we play our cards right.”

Saying he had spoken to Trump over the weekend, Graham said “the president appreciates what the Kurds have done. He wants to make sure ISIS does not come back. I expect we will continue to partner with the Kurds in eastern Syria to make sure ISIS does not re-emerge.”

Graham also said Trump was “thinking outside the box” when it comes to the oilfields in that part of Syria.

“I was so impressed with his thinking about the oil. Not only are we going to deny the oilfields falling into Iranian hands; I believe we are on the verge of a joint venture between us and the [Kurdish-led] Syrian Democratic Forces, who helped to destroy ISIS and keep them destroyed, to modernize the oilfields and make sure that they get the revenue – not the Iranians, not Assad – and it can help pay for our small commitment in the future.”

Appearing on the same program Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had received an assurance from Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley “on a residual force” in Syria.

McCaul said his biggest concern was that a complete troop pullout from Syria would see a replay of the rise of ISIS and formation of its so-called caliphate after President Obama withdrew the last 10,000 U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011.

“We do not want to see that same phenomenon happen in Syria, so we pressed very hard on the fact that we need a residual force in Syria, to first and foremost protect the homeland,” he said.

Like Graham, McCaul has criticized Trump’s recent moves in northeastern Syria. Last week he co-authored a bipartisan resolution opposing the decision “to end certain United States efforts to prevent Turkish military operations against Syrian Kurdish forces in Northeast Syria.”

It passed the House with the support of 129 Republicans, included key Trump allies.

A U.S. soldier in northeastern Syria last month. (Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

‘Protect those oilfields’

In two tweets over the weekend relating to the situation in Syria, Trump referred – without elaborating – to the U.S. having “secured the Oil.”

Citing unnamed administration officials, the New York Times reported Sunday that Trump may agree to keep several hundred Special Forces troops in eastern Syria to counter ISIS and help the Kurds retain control of the oilfields.

Syria is not a major oil producer by global standards, but does have oilfields concentrated in the Deir al-Zour region in the east of the country – roughly 100 miles to the south-east of the Turkish military offensive, temporarily “paused” as a result of an agreement between Washington and Ankara.

Seized by ISIS in 2014, the oilfields became a major source of revenue for the Sunni terrorist group until the fall of 2017, when they were recaptured by the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.

(When four months later forces loyal to the Assad regime made a bid to seize that oil-rich area from the SDF, the U.S.-led coalition carried out airstrikes, killing and wounding large numbers of the attackers including a number of Russian irregulars.)

Later on Sunday retired U.S. Army Gen. Jack Keane, a Fox News analyst, told the channel, “I know for a fact that policy makers are reconsidering, are there other places that we may indeed have to keep some troops in Syria, over by the Iraq border?”

There would be two reasons for doing so, he said: To keep a foot “on the throats of ISIS,” and to prevent the oilfields from falling into the hands of Assad’s Iranian allies.

Keane, a former U.S. Army vice chief of staff, said some 70 percent of the oilfields in eastern Syria “are under our control.”

“If we pull out of there and give up airspace control, they will seize those oilfields,” he said.

“What I’m hoping is that we do leave some presence of forces in Syria, working with the Syrian Kurds and the Arabs, and we make certain that we’re staying on top of ISIS but we’re also going to protect those oilfields.”

On Saturday, Esper told reporters traveling with him to Afghanistan that the troops now being withdrawn from Syria in a “very deliberate” process would be stationed in western Iraq, where they would “help defend Iraq” and “perform a counter-ISIS mission.”

“That’s the current game plan,” he said. “Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now.”

He did not say anything about residual forces remaining in eastern Syria.


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