DAMASCUS/WASHINGTON, D.C. – The long-awaited US pullout from Syria appears to have been postponed, with Pentagon sources claiming some 800 troops will stay behind to “guard” Syria’s oil, in a mission even pro-war US politicians are calling “reckless”.
A total of about 800 troops will be stationed in the country, with some 600 in the Kurdish-controlled northeast plus the 200 currently garrisoned at al-Tanf in the south, anonymous administration officials told the AP. The administration of President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that US troops will occupy a large, oil-rich area stretching 150km from Deir Ezzor to Hasaka.
The decision appears to cancel out Trump’s promise made last month to bring home the 1,000 troops stationed in Syria, representing another triumph of the hawks in his administration over the president’s non-interventionist impulses. Trump has repeatedly bragged “We’re keeping the oil”.
The explicit purpose of the occupation – guarding the Kurdish-controlled oil fields in northeast Syria not only from terrorists, but from the Syrian government – is illegal under international law, as Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin pointed out on Tuesday.
Even American politicians who were previously champing at the bit for Trump to keep troops in Syria have criticized the move. They point out that the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force – the post-9/11 resolutions that have been stretched to justify invasions of several countries under the guise of “fighting terrorism” – don’t allow the US to occupy another country’s oil fields, given that the US is not at war with Turkey or (officially, at least) Syria.
The US is building two new military bases in Deir Ezzor, according to Turkish media reports, indicating Trump is settling in for the long haul. One base, near the town of Rmelan in Hasaka province, is reportedly situated near some 1,300 oil wells and fills up approximately 4 square km.
Officials told the AP that the order’s approval does not include a “mandate” to take Syria’s oil, while Defense Secretary Mark Esper attempted to smooth out the president’s words to that effect by saying he “interprets” them to mean US troops are guarding Syria’s resources from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL or Daesh) – even though the president has declared the terror group defeated.
Trump announced troops would be pulled out of northeast Syria last month, allowing Turkey to clear the border area of the Kurdish militias Ankara considers terrorists. The president’s critics in Washington recoiled at the prospect of peace, slamming Trump for abandoning the US’ Kurdish allies, even when his administration negotiated a cease-fire with Turkey that gave Kurdish forces several days to clear the area and cleared the way for Russia and Turkey to reach a peaceful settlement of their own.