US discussing proposal to leave troops around Syria's oil fields, Pentagon says

By KAREEM FAHIM AND SUSANNAH GEORGE | The Washington Post | Published: October 21, 2019

ISTANBUL — The Pentagon is discussing keeping a "residual force" of U.S. troops around oil fields in Syria, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday, as a large U.S. military convoy withdrew from a region of northeastern Syria where Turkey is seeking to establish a buffer zone.

Esper, speaking during a visit to Afghanistan, said the purpose of the residual force would be to "deny access, specifically revenue to ISIS and any other groups that might want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities." He was referring to the Islamic State terrorist group.

The proposal to keep troops in Syria "in some cities" has not yet been presented to President Donald Trump, Esper added.

Esper made the comments about a need to stand sentry at Syria's oil fields as another U.S. mission in the country was approaching its high-profile conclusion: a partnership with Syrian Kurdish militias to fight the Islamic State.

Trump's announcement of a U.S. withdrawal this month cleared the way for a Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria. Critics charged that Trump abandoned Syrian Kurdish allies who had lost hundreds of fighters while helping beat back the extremist group.

Turkey regards the Kurdish-led militias in Syria as a security threat because of their links to a Kurdish militant group that has fought a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.

A cease-fire agreement reached by the United States and the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday committed Turkey to a five-day pause in the offensive to allow the Syrian Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a "safe zone" in northeastern Syria.

Both Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have accused each other of violating the cease-fire's terms, while U.S. officials have said the truce is generally holding.

As part of the ongoing U.S. withdrawal, a convoy of dozens of vehicles left Syria on Monday, most flying large American flags. Videos that circulated online showed some residents in northern Syria heckling the soldiers and pelting vehicles with objects, said to be rocks and rotten vegetables.

Trump has defended the withdrawal as part of his overarching pledge to stop U.S. involvement in "endless wars" in the Middle East.

But that pledge has come with significant caveats. The Pentagon announced earlier this month that it was sending 1,800 additional troops to Saudi Arabia after attacks on two oil facilities there that the United States has blamed on Iran.

The proposal to continue securing oil fields in Syria, indefinitely, could rely on a force of about 200 U.S. troops in eastern Syria, a U.S. official said. It was intended to deter not only the Islamic State from profiting from the oil, the official said, but also Syria's government, which is steadily recovering territory it lost during that country's civil war as it advances with backing from Russia and Iran.

Trump hinted at the plans two days ago, when he wrote on Twitter that "we have secured the oil," without providing more detail. On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on the Fox News Channel that the United States was going to "deny the oil fields falling into Iranian hands."

Graham, a Trump ally who had criticized the administration for its handling of the Turkish offensive, said he was "increasingly optimistic it could turn out well."

"The big thing for me is the oil fields," he said. "I believe we are on the verge of a joint venture between us and the Syrian Democratic Forces, who helped destroy ISIS and keep them destroyed, to modernize the oil fields and make sure they get the revenue, not the Iranians, not Assad."

Iran is already selling oil to Syria, and its deliveries, along with oil produced in Syrian government-controlled areas, largely meets the country's demand of up to 150,000 barrels a day, according to David Butter, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.

Oil fields in other parts of Syria, including the Euphrates River valley and northeastern Syria, were under the control of the SDF — and in some places, secured alongside U.S. troops or American contractors, he said. Together, the fields in those regions could produce perhaps 60,000 barrels a day, but it was unclear how much, if any, is being produced at present, he said.

The Islamic State had been able to profit handsomely from Syria's oil for a time. When the militants controlled large portions of the country and the price of oil was around $100 a barrel, crude was sold to traders or refined in makeshift facilities for local use. "It would be highly embarrassing for the U.S. for ISIS to start up oil operations again," Butter said.

But the other goal of the U.S. proposal — to prevent Iran or Syria from accessing the oil — "doesn't make a whole lot of sense," he said, given U.S. support for other political and military developments — including the Turkish offensive — that were "hugely advantageous" to the Syrian government and were allowing it to reclaim territory.

George reported from Kabul. The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

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