- President Donald Trump's claim that he has "secured the oil" in Syria as the US withdraws troops from the country is incorrect, and US forces are scrambling to figure out how to protect key oil fields in the country, both US and Kurdish officials say.
- Trump tweeted Sunday that the US was withdrawing from Syria having "secured the oil" in the country's eastern oil fields.
- Officials in the region said talks were ongoing about redeploying US troops to the Deir Al Zor region to protect a series of contested oil fields that provide a key revenue stream to whoever controls them.
- "Trump is changing his mind again, and it looks like his people reminded him about the million dollars a day in revenue those fields produce for whomever controls them," said a Western military official who works closely with the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria.
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President Donald Trump's claim that he has "secured the oil" in Syria as the US withdraws troops from the country is incorrect, and US forces are scrambling to figure out how to protect key oil fields in the country, both US and Kurdish officials say.
US Defense Secretary Mike Esper told reporters accompanying him on a trip to the Afghan capital, Kabul, that US forces could be redeployed from their abandoned bases in northeastern Syria to areas along the Iraq-Syria border to support the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group as well as to protect key oil installations coveted by all sides of the conflict.
The statement came on the heels of a tweet by Trump announcing that he had ordered some troops to remain in Syria and that the country's key oil fields had been "secured."
Contradicting the president, however, both Esper and Kurdish officials said that no such move had taken place and that while discussions over how the US could deploy were underway, no agreement had been reached.
The confusion came as withdrawing US troops were hit with rotten vegetables and stones by Kurdish civilians angry at the US's refusal to protect its former allies in the fight against ISIS from a Turkish invasion of the area that began October 9.
Trump has faced staunch criticism for effectively abandoning the US's Kurdish allies and despite having called for a complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria appears to be willing to extend the deployment of at least a nominal force.
Mazloum Kobani, the head of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, offered to continue cooperation with US troops in the far east of the country away from the border with Turkey — now controlled by Russian, Syrian, and Turkish troops — but US officials appeared to be tying any cooperation with US supervision of the rich oil fields around the eastern Syrian city of Deir Al Zor.
At least 75% of Syria's estimated oil reserves of 2.5 billion barrels are thought to be in the fields surrounding Deir Al Zor. These fields have played a critical role in financially supporting whoever controls them throughout Syria's civil war.
The fields were part of the territory controlled by the Islamic State for several years, giving the group a consistent stream of income from sales to Syrian and Turkish smugglers. The fields were eventually captured in 2017 by American-backed Kurdish forces.
Even as Kobani suggested a continued US presence in Syria in the Deir Al Zor area — which would base US troops far from the Turkish incursion and cease-fire areas — to continue to fight small ISIS cells along the border with Iraq, Trump tweeted specifically: "We have secured the oil."
The SDF says it remains in control of Syria's rich eastern oil fields
A fighter with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir Al Zor said that there had been no change in deployments around the oil fields, which remain coveted by the Syrian government as a cash stream.
"The fields have stayed in our hands," said the SDF fighter, who asked that his name not be used for fear of repercussions from the Syrian government.
"We have an agreement with the regime to give them some of our positions along the Turkish border, but we have not negotiated with them on the oil fields yet," he added.
"There will probably be a version of joint control and revenue sharing with the regime from these fields. I don't know if Trump understands this."
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Kobani did not reference the oil facilities but told The New York Times that he had ordered a resumption of anti-ISIS operations in the Deir Al Zor and Abu Kamal areas of Syria after standing down such operations during the first days of the Turkish invasion of Syria.
However, Esper told reporters on his Afghanistan trip that some US troops could remain along the Iraq-Syria border to help the Kurds fight ISIS and maintain control over the oil fields.
Esper said that despite the flurry of social-media statements by all sides, options were being presented to Trump for a final decision.
"Trump is changing his mind again and it looks like his people reminded him about the million dollars a day in revenue those fields produce for whomever controls them," a Western military official who works closely with the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria said. The official, who was not authorized to speak with the media, asked not to be named.
"It's clear the military guys want to keep at least some units inside Syria despite Trump's loud pronouncements they would leave, and while arguments about US loyalty to allies or geopolitical effects have failed, it seems like they're reminding him about the oil," the official said.
"He understands money better than geopolitics, so this is the argument they're using to keep some sort of presence."
The oil fields in question were attacked by government forces and hundreds of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group in February 2018, but the operation was thwarted by heavy US air support backing the SDF, which killed hundreds of Syrian troops and their advisers.
The Arab fighter for the SDF in Deir Al Zor said that for now his units were begrudgingly willing to cooperate with the US troops if the plan to base them along the Iraqi border and in the oil fields were finalized.
"We know the regime and Russians want these fields, and we can't let them cross the [Euphrates] river [from the West] or they will take control of the fields," he said.
"The people of Deir Al Zor do not want to live under [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and we no longer trust the Americans. But maybe we can trust Trump to want his hands on the oil. I just don't know how long he will protect us."