US Military Envisions Broad Defense of Syrian Oilfields
Esper says US will keep Syrian government away from Syrian oil
(October 28, 2019) — The Pentagon intends to retain control of Syria’s oilfields going forward, and says they will repel anyone else trying to take that oil with “overwhelming force.” This has become the chief, and materially only, military goal of the US military operation in Syria.
Since President Trump announced his intention to control the oil, and conceivably to try to take some of it on behalf of the US, the Pentagon has been revising the Syria mission around controlling the oil. This has included sending more troops and tanks.
Pentagon officials have tried to build this narrative around keeping ISIS from reclaiming the oilfields, since they held them once. With ISIS barely existing anymore, that’s not a realistic threat, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper conceded on Monday that the deployments of US forces are meant to “deny access” to the oil to either Russia or the Syrian government.
Keeping Syria’s oil away from Syria is a potential problem, but Esper says the goal is to give some of the money to the Kurdish SDF to keep themselves armed, and to keep supporting the US military mission in Syria.
Giving the Kurds money to help with the US mission would sound a lot better if the US mission wasn’t to keep the oil for itself, and with the US increasingly cutting its ties to the Kurds, and Trump increasingly ripping into the Kurds on social media, it seems like that ship has already sailed.
Which doesn’t mean any necessarily substantial changes in the US plan, beyond cutting the Kurds out of the equation of who gets money out of an oil scheme, assuming one ever actually happens.
US to Keep Deir Ezzor Oilfields Out of Syrian Government Hands, Esper Says
US’ confusing reversal: to ‘secure the oilfields’ amid Syria withdrawal
(October 28, 2019) — US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday, 28 October, that a deployment of additional military forces to Syria’s eastern oilfields is aimed in part at denying them to Russia and the Syrian government.
Answering a question by CNN correspondent Barbara Starr as to whether the deployment mission includes “denying access, preventing Russian or Syrian forces” from accessing the oilfields, Secretary Esper replied, “In short yes, it presently does.”
“We want to make sure the SDF does have access to resources in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat ISIS mission. So that’s our mission, to secure the oilfields,” Esper said.
Esper’s comments shed light on a confusing development in the chaotic drawdown of US forces from northeast Syria after the White House announced on October 9 that US forces would stand down as Turkey launched a military incursion against the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-led Coalition’s main partner force on the ground in the war against Islamic State.
Esper announced the full withdrawal of American troops from the northeast after SDF leadership allegedly reached out to the Syrian government in Damascus for protection from the Turkey-led incursion. The Pentagon later announced a partial reversal to that decision, saying that additional US forces would be deployed to Syria’s eastern oilfields.
“The US is committed to reinforcing our position, in coordination with our SDF partners, in northeast Syria with additional military assets to prevent those oil fields from falling back to into the hands of ISIS or other destabilizing actors,” a Pentagon official said.
In response to Starr’s question on Monday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said, “The fundamental purpose of securing those oilfields is to deny those oilfields access to ISIS in order to prevent ISIS from resurgence, because we are still committed to the counter-ISIS campaign.”
“We don’t want them to resurge, they get a lot of their revenues from that.”
Though the US believes sleeper cells remain, ISIS does not control territory in the Middle Euphrates river valley. The group’s last holdout in the area was assaulted through in March by the SDF and Coalition forces, and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed during a US raid in northwest Syria on Saturday.
The oil and gas fields of Deir Ezzor are a strategic prize of the Syrian conflict. The Coalition bombed the processing facilities for years in an effort to choke off Islamic State’s revenue flow.
In February 2018, hundreds of Russian mercenaries and Syrian-pro regime forces were reportedly killed by American airstrikes after advancing towards the US and SDF-held Conoco gas field near Deir Ezzor. The US claimed it reacted in self-defense.
The SDF controls a semi-autonomous region of Syria’s northeast and has long asked the US to push for its inclusion a negotiated political settlement to the country’s eight-year civil war.
The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has refused to guarantee autonomy to the northeast’s administration, and vowed to take all territory back under centralized control, including the oilfields.
Russia has publicly supported Damascus’ position.
US control of the oilfields briefly caught the attention of Congress last year, with some lawmakers criticizing it as an unjustified expansion and violation the military’s legal mandate to fight ISIS in Syria.
The US mission in Syria is not authorized under international law and rests on American Congressional legislation from 2001.
Esper said Monday that the mission was not indefinite.
“At the end of the day we will be sending troops home. The president made a commitment to do that. But in the meantime we’re going to reinforce and make some other moves to ensure that we can accomplish that mission of securing the oilfields in order to deny access to ISIS.”
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