The United States will send armoured vehicles and combat troops into eastern Syria to keep oil fields from potentially falling into the hands of Islamic State militants, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday.
It was the latest sign that extracting the military from Syria is more uncertain and complicated than President Donald Trump is making it out to be. Though Mr Trump repeatedly says he is pulling out of Syria, the reality on the ground is different.
Adding armoured reinforcements in the oil-producing area of Syria could mean sending several hundred US troops – even as a similar number are being withdrawn from a separate mission closer to the border with Turkey where Russian forces have been filling the vacuum.
Mr Esper described the added force as “mechanised,” which means it likely will include armoured vehicles such as Bradley armoured infantry carriers and possibly tanks, although details were still to be worked out.
This reinforcement would introduce a new dimension to the US military presence, which largely has been comprised of special operations forces not equipped with tanks or other armoured vehicles.
Mr Esper spoke at a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he consulted with American allies.
Sending an armoured force to eastern Syria would partially reverse the ongoing shrinkage of the US troop presence in Syria.
Mr Trump has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all 1,000 US troops who had been partnering with a Syrian Kurdish-led militia against the Islamic State group. That withdrawal is proceeding even as Mr Esper announced the plan to put reinforcements in the oil-producing area.
Speaking to reporters on Friday at the White House, Mr Trump said the US-brokered agreement with Turkey to halt its offensive against US-supporting Syrian Kurdish fighters was a win for his administration.
That offensive began after Mr Trump announced US troops would not stand in the way, though he also said the US would punish Turkey’s economy if the country acted inhumanely.
He also said anew on Friday that “we’re getting our troops out” of Syria, without mentioning Mr Esper’s announcement.
“We are doing well in Syria, with Turkey and everybody else that we’re dealing with,” Mr Trump said. “We have secured the oil … We have a couple of people that came knocking, we said don’t knock. And I think I would say that things are going very well.”
White House officials would not clarify whom he was referring to as “knocking.”
Russian and Turkish leaders have now divided up security roles in northeast Syria following Mr Trump’s abrupt troop withdrawal from the Turkey-Syrian border region.
Mr Esper’s announcement came even as Mr Trump again indicated in tweets that the US military mission in Syria was complete.
He previously has acknowledged a willingness to help protect the oil fields in eastern Syria, suggesting they could benefit the Kurds as well as the United States, although those resources belong to the Syrian government.
“Oil is secured,” Trump tweeted Friday. “Our soldiers have left and are leaving Syria for other places, then…. COMING HOME! … When these pundit fools who have called the Middle East wrong for 20 years ask what we are getting out of the deal, I simply say, THE OIL, AND WE ARE BRINGING OUR SOLDIERS BACK HOME, ISIS SECURED!”
Asked about America’s shifting Syria strategy, Mr Esper said the US mission had always been to prevent the resurgence of IS. “That mission remains unchanged,” he said.
But Esper said at NATO the US was “considering how we might reposition forces in the area in order to ensure we secure the oil field.” He added: “We are reinforcing that position. It will include some mechanised forces.”
He made clear the main purpose was to prevent IS from regaining access to Syrian oil, which prior to 2017 was a major source of its revenue.