The US is increasing its efforts to protect Syria’s oil fields from the so-called Islamic State group as well as from Syria itself and the country’s Russian allies.
After the dramatic killing of the IS leader, defence secretary Mark Esper indicated the new high-stakes push is under way even as American troops are withdrawn from other parts of the country.
Mr Esper said the oil field mission will also ensure income for Syrian Kurds who are counted on by Washington to continue guarding IS 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 mission by US special 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 US 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 north-western 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 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 north-eastern 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 has recently proposed hiring an American oil company to begin repairing Syria’s oil infrastructure, which has been devastated by years of war. Repeated US air strikes against facilities for oil storage, transport, processing and refining, starting in 2015, have 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 infantry carriers.
On Monday he referred to “multiple state and non-state” 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.
“We’re keeping the oil,” Mr Trump said during a speech on Monday. “Remember that, I’ve always said that. Keep the oil. We want to keep the oil — 45 million dollars a month — keep the oil. We’ve secured the oil.”