The U.S. is reportedly planning to deploy tanks and other heavy military hardware to protect oil fields in eastern Syria.

This would mark the first deployment of U.S. tanks to Syria.

A senior Pentagon official told Newsweek Wednesday that the U.S. is seeking to deploy half of an Army armored brigade combat team that includes 30 Abrams tanks to eastern Syria, where lucrative oil fields are under the control of a mostly Kurdish force. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), will continue to be involved in securing these oil fields, the official said.

The plan, if executed, will reverse U.S. President Donald Trump’s earlier order to withdraw all troops from Syria.

The plans come one day after Trump announced a “permanent” cease-fire in northeast Syria and said a “small number” of U.S. troops would guard oil fields now in Syrian Kurdish hands.

“We’ve secured the oil and therefore a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area. Where they have the oil and we’re going to be protecting it and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future,” announced Trump.

The Pentagon is “likely” to order tanks and hundreds of soldiers to eastern Syria, U.S. officials told Fox News.

Fox News reported such a deployment was “likely” and that the tanks would come from units already in the Middle East.

CNN said it would happen relatively soon.

The new tank deployment by the U.S. would have a combined purpose of keeping ISIS, and the Syrian government, Iran and their allied militias away from the eastern oil fields.

It would take more troops to deploy, maintain, supply and protect armored units in the middle of the eastern Syrian desert than the roughly 1,000 that were in the country before the Turkish invasion.

The contradiction has been apparent in Trump’s remarks in recent days, in which he claimed the U.S. had “secured the oil” even while withdrawing its forces.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, the president’s special envoy to Syria acknowledged pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria would have been a mistake.

“We obviously had troops there for a mission, the mission was defeating ISIS so if you remove those troops before that mission is complete then you have a problem and we do have a problem right now and we are working our way through it,” said Ambassador James Jeffrey the president’s special envoy to Syria and the ISIS fight.

He later told a Senate panel the plans on defending the oil fields have not been completed.

“What are we going do with these oil fields? That’s a really good question and were really working hard on it. We do not have an answer on it at this time,” Jeffrey said.

“It would mean walling off eastern Syria as a U.S. zone,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington, said of the plan to put tanks around the Conoco plant. “You would have to protect it from the air. You have to supply it and then you have got to protect the road, presumably from Iraq. You can easily see a scenario where we end up with more troops in Syria than we started off with.”

The U.S. president did suggest Wednesday he would keep troops in the small southwestern garrison of Al-Tanf, and across crucial oil fields now controlled by the SDF.

“We’ve secured the oil and, therefore, a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area, where they have the oil,” Trump said at the White House. “And we’re going to be protecting it, and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future.”On Thursday, Trump added to the confusion on Thursday by tweeting: “Perhaps it is time for the Kurds to start heading to the oil region!”

The remark seemed to endorse a population transfer from the Kurdish areas along the border with Turkey southwards to the almost entirely Sunni Arab area of Deir Ezzor. Such a mass displacement of Kurds from their homes would fit with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans to resettle northeastern Syria with Syrian Arab refugees to create a buffer zone against Kurdish insurgents. Kurdish refugees in Turkey are already reported to be subject to forcible deportation.

“The president of the United States is now helping Turkey achieve ethnic cleansing by telling the Kurds to flee their homes,” former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said in a comment on Twitter.

Such mass demographic changes – carried out at the barrel of a gun – risk prolonging Syria’s multiple-front conflict indefinitely, said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UN’s former humanitarian chief.

“This was an area of relative stability, before all of these deals,” said Egeland, who was also the UN’s special adviser on Syria. “We need to remind all of these people with the power and the guns that this is no chessboard. It is a place where people live. There are two to three million civilians in this area. I cannot see how this can be a safe zone for long with so many different armed parties.”

Egeland said about 180,000 people, half of them children, had been displaced as a consequence of the Turkish incursion. He added that Kurds arriving at overcrowded camps in Iraq said that many more would join the exodus from the northeast but could not afford to pay people-smugglers who charge hundreds of dollars per person.

Egeland said the mass displacement of populations was being brought about as a consequence of “explosive, improvised deals”.

The U.S. initially joined Turkey in backing the rebels and jihadis trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but later switched its support to the SDF as defeating ISIS became a priority.

Earlier reports said that the SDF have entered into arrangements to sell oil to the Syrian government.

Asked about the oil situation during a White House press briefing Wednesday, one senior administration official echoed the president in saying that the final fate of these resources was yet to be determined.

“The President has stated that we are going to have a residual force in the region to protect areas that hold the oil fields, as well as the base down at Al-Tanf, in southern Syria. Those are important areas to allow us to constrain the resurgence of ISIS. And there is some artillery benefit, of course, to Kurds and other Democratic Forces being in control of the oil,” the official said.

“As far as how the oil will be sold and that sort of thing, that’s something that we’ll certainly look into and we’ll monitor going forward. And we’ll keep a close eye on that,” the official continued, adding that “the goal of the administration, the goal of the President — as he made very clear today — is to have all American troops out of Syria, and that’s something that we believe will ultimately happen.”

“We have troops in towns in … northeast Syria that are located next to the oil fields. The troops in those towns are not in the present phase of withdrawal,” Esper told a joint press conference in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

“This withdrawal [of U.S. forces] will take weeks, not days. Until that time, our forces will remain in the towns that are located near the oil fields. The purpose of those forces —a purpose of those forces, working with the SDF, is to deny access to those oil fields by ISIS,” he added.


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