Pivoting from the dramatic killing of the Islamic State’s leader, the US is set to increase its efforts to protect Syria’s oil fields from Islamic State as well as from Syria itself and the country’s Russian allies.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper indicated on Monday the new high stakes push was under way, even as American troops are withdrawn from other parts of the country.
Mr Esper says the military’s oil field mission also will ensure income for Syrian Kurds who are counted on by Washington to continue guarding Islamic State prisoners and helping American forces combat remnants of the group — even as President Donald Trump continues to insist all US troops will come home.
“We don’t want to be a policeman in this case,” Mr Trump said on Monday, referring to America’s role after Turkey’s incursion in Syria.
In the face of Turkey’s early October warning that it would invade and create a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of its border, Mr Trump ordered US forces to step aside, effectively abandoning a Kurdish militia that had partnered with US troops.
Mr Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at a Pentagon news conference to cheer the successful mission by US special operations forces on Saturday that ended with IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi blowing himself up.
Mr Esper called al-Baghdadi’s death a “devastating blow” to an organisation that already had lost its hold on a large part of territory in Syria and Iraq.
Gen Milley said the U.S. had disposed of al-Baghdadi’s remains “appropriately” and in line with the laws of armed conflict. He also said US forces retrieved unspecified intelligence information from the site, which he described as a place in northwestern Syria where the IS leader had been “staying on a consistent basis”.
A US military dog that was slightly injured in the raid has recovered and is back at work, Gen Milley said.
Mr Esper hinted at uncertainty ahead in Syria, even though IS has lost its inspirational leader, with the Syrian government exploiting support from Russia and Iran.
“The security situation in Syria remains complex,” Mr Esper said.
A big part of that complexity is the rejigging of the battlefield since Mr Trump earlier this month ordered a full US troop withdrawal from positions along the Turkish border in northeastern Syria.
Even as those troops leave, other US forces are heading to the oil-producing region of eastern Syria, east of the Euphrates River.
Mr Trump recently has proposed hiring an American oil company to begin repairing Syria’s oil infrastructure, which has been devastated by years of war. Repeated US airstrikes against facilities for oil storage, transport, processing and refining starting in 2015 inflicted heavy damage.
Mr Esper said last week that a “mechanised” force would reinforce US positions in the oil region, meaning a force equipped with tanks or Bradley infancy carriers.
On Monday he referred to “multiple state and nonstate” forces vying for control of Syrian territory and resources, including the oil. He said that while the main US military mission is to ensure the “enduring defeat” of IS, that now will include denying oil income for the group.
“The United States will retain control of oil fields in northeast Syria,” Mr Esper said, adding that at the height of al-Baghdadi’s rule, those oil fields provided the bulk of his group’s income.
Mr Esper’s remarks echoed Trump’s focus on the oil. One question is, whose oil is it?
“We’re keeping the oil,” Mr Trump said during a speech to police officers in Chicago on Monday. “Remember that, I’ve always said that. Keep the oil. We want to keep the oil — $45m a month — keep the oil. We’ve secured the oil.”
Mr Esper emphasised the purpose of securing Syria’s oil region is to deny income to IS, but was also asked by a reporter whether the mission included preventing Russian and Syrian government forces from entering that area.
“The short answer is yes, it presently does,” Mr Esper said, “because in that case we want to make sure” the Syrian Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, “does have access to the resources in order to guard the prisons and arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat-ISIS mission.”