US Defence Secretary Mark Esper contradicted Donald Trump in a conversation with reporters on Monday, saying troops would likely remain in northeast Syria despite the president’s abrupt announcement of a total withdrawal from the region.
After arriving for a visit in Afghanistan, the defence secretary said some troops would be needed in order to prevent oil from falling into the hands of the Islamic State or others.
“We have troops in towns in northeast Syria that are located next to the oil fields,” Mr Esper said. “The troops in those towns are not in the present phase of withdrawal.”
He added: “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.”
Mr Trump said earlier this month he had decided to withdraw all 1,000 US troops from the region, a move that was swiftly criticised as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside them against Isis.
His comments came as US troops crossed into Iraq on Monday morning as part of the withdrawal process.
Mr Trump began pulling US troops back from northeastern Syria in early October, opening the way for Turkish troops to launch an offensive against the Kurdish fighters.
There had been discussions about keeping some of the US troops who were with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in place, Mr Esper had said.
He added that while he had not yet presented that option, the Pentagon’s role was to look at different options.
The SDF, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has been the main partner for the U.S-led coalition in Syria.
“There has been a discussion about possibly doing it (keeping some troops), there has been no decision with regard to numbers or anything like that,” he said.
Turkey agreed to a five-day ceasefire that ends on late Tuesday and was reportedly disrupted by shelling shortly after Vice President Mike Pence announced the agreement,
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has warned that Ankara will resume its military assault in Syria when the deadline expires if the SDF have not pulled back from its proposed “safe zone” area spanning the border.
Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.
Reuters contributed to this report