KABUL, Afghanistan — Even as American forces make a hasty and chaotic withdrawal from north-eastern Syria, the US is considering leaving some troops behind to secure oilfields in the region and make sure they don’t fall into the hands of a resurgent Islamic State, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday.
The Pentagon chief said the plan for was still in the discussion phase and had not yet been presented to President Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly said the Islamic State has been defeated and has portrayed the withdrawal of American support for Kurdish forces as part of his larger goal of bringing troops home from the Middle East.
Esper emphasised that the proposal to leave a small number of troops in eastern Syria was intended to give the president “manoeuvre room” and wasn’t final.
“There has been a discussion about possibly doing it,” Esper told a press conference in Afghanistan before heading to Saudi Arabia. “There has been no decision with regard to numbers or anything like that.”
Still, the fact that such a plan was under consideration was another sign the Trump Administration was still trying to sort out its overall strategy amid fierce criticism from the president’s Republican allies of his abrupt decision to pull US forces back — essentially clearing the way for Turkey’s military incursion into the border region to push back the American-allied Kurdish forces.
A White House official said GOP Senator Lindsey Graham raised the issue of keeping US forces in eastern Syria to protect the oilfields and that Trump supported the idea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions. Esper said the main goal would be to make sure the Islamic State doesn’t gain control of the oilfields and the revenue they generate.
The defence secretary said American troops around Kobani are withdrawing and that the US is maintaining combat air patrol over US forces in Syria as the withdrawal goes on. He said the US is using overhead surveillance to try to monitor the recently negotiated ceasefire “as best we can”.
While Trump has insisted he’s bringing home Americans from “endless wars” in the Mideast, Esper said all US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq, and the American military will continue operations against the Islamic State group.
The troops aren’t coming home and the United States isn’t leaving the turbulent Middle East, according to plans outlined by Esper before he arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday. The fight in Syria against IS, once spearheaded by American-allied Syrian Kurds who have been cast aside by Trump, will be undertaken by US forces, possibly from neighbouring Iraq.
Esper did not rule out the idea that US forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. But he told reporters travelling with him that those details will be worked out over time.
Trump nonetheless tweeted: “USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!”
The Republican president declared this past week that Washington had no stake in defending the Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America’s partners fighting in Syria against IS extremists. Turkey conducted a week-long offensive into north-eastern Syria against the Kurdish fighters before a military pause.
“It’s time for us to come home,” Trump said, defending his removal of US troops from that part of Syria and praising his decision to send more troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend against Iran.
Esper’s earlier comments to reporters travelling with him were the first to specifically lay out where American troops will go as they shift from Syria, and what the counter-IS fight could look like. Esper said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift about 1,000 troops from Syria into western Iraq.
Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 US troops in Syria to withdraw, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Kurdish forces who Turkey considers terrorists. The pullout largely abandons America’s Kurdish allies who have fought IS alongside US troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 US troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.
The US has more than 5,000 American forces in Iraq, under an agreement between the two countries. The US pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after IS began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014. The number of American forces in Iraq has remained small due to political sensitivities in the country, after years of what some Iraqis consider US occupation during the war that began in 2003.