U.S. troops and armored vehicles entered Syria Thursday with the proclaimed mission to protect oil fields from the Islamic State (ISIS).
Dozens of U.S. soldiers and fewer than 10 Bradley armored vehicles moved into the northeastern part of Syria.
On the other hand, citing a witness and Reuters video footage a Beirut datelined and “U.S. forces patrolling in Syria near Turkish border” headlined Reuters report said:
U.S. armored vehicles were seen on Thursday near the Syria-Turkey border in a part of northeastern Syria where they had not been observed since early October when Washington announced the withdrawal of American forces.
U.S. armored vehicles for the first time in Syria
On Thursday, the spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS tweeted photos of troops loading Bradley vehicles aboard aircraft for the mission in Syria.
It is the first time in the five-year war on ISIS that U.S. armor has been used to fight the extremists. The U.S.-led coalition has relied mainly on airstrikes to support local forces on the ground.
Choking off ISIS oil-revenue
Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who leads U.S. Central Command, told reporters Wednesday that keeping oil fields from ISIS chokes off revenue the group needs to mount a comeback.
“What we want to do is ensure that ISIS is not able to regain possession of any of the oil fields that would allow them to gain income going forward,” McKenzie said. “So that’s – we’ve got forces at Deir ez-Zor, that is – we have brought in some reinforcements there. We’ll await further decisions of the U.S. government about how that plan is going to look in the long term.”
U.S. decision criticized
Iran, Russia and Turkey – the three remaining actors in the region wielding influence over the conflict – have all criticized the U.S. decision to maintain a presence near oil fields.
U.S. patrol on the Syria-Turkey border
The Reuters report said:
A military source from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) described the movement as a patrol running between the towns of Rmeilan and Qahtaniyah, which is 20 km to the west. The source said it would “not be a one-time” event.
The witness saw the U.S. military vehicles outside the town of Qahtaniyah, roughly 6 km south of the border.
Later on Thursday, Reuters video recorded from Turkish territory showed a convoy of around 20 military vehicles flying American flags moving through the Syrian border city of Qamishli, which is about 30 km west of Qahtaniyah.
The head of the SDF’s media office could not immediately be reached for comment.
Turkey’s defense and foreign ministries did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
In response to a question about the reported troop movement, Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition, said: “All Coalition military operations are de-conflicted with other forces operating in the region”.
“We have begun repositioning Coalition troops to the Deir al-Zor region, in coordination with our SDF partners, to increase security (and) continue our mission to defeat (Islamic State) remnants,” Caggins added.
The reported troop movement comes after the expiration of a Tuesday deadline set by Turkey and Russia for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the SDF, to pull back 30 km away from its border.
Turkey made a similar deal with the U.S., pausing its assault during the withdrawal.
While both Washington and Moscow have said that YPG fighters left the border area within the given time, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan has said Kurdish fighters still remained, and that Ankara and Moscow would begin joint patrols along the border at a depth of 7 km on Friday.
Number of U.S. soldiers
Media reports said:
The number of U.S. soldiers or vehicles ultimately to be deployed in Syria have not yet been announced.
Former U.S. military leaders say the job will probably require a battalion-sized formation, or several hundred more troops — on top of about 200 that have remained in the southeast of Syria.
That means the new total will likely exceed the 500 troops deployed to Syria back in January 2017, when Trump was sworn in.
“What it will mean as far as U.S. forces on the ground will likely be about 600 troops, would be my guess,” Jack Keane, a retired Army general who has informally advised the Trump administration on national security issues, said of the oil mission.
“I think it needs to be a few hundred guys, 300 or 400 at least,” said Dana Pittard, a retired Army major general who was the senior U.S. commander in Iraq during the first year of the fight against ISIS in 2014-2015. “That’s about what I would be comfortable with, depending on how many sites they’re securing.
“These oil facilities can be huge,” he added, noting that “you could have companies at multiple sites, and that would put you at around 600 personnel plus.”
That would push the U.S. troop level in Syria to close to the 1,000 that were in the country when Trump ordered his withdrawal earlier this month, largely reversing his much-touted pullout.
The Pentagon plans for there to be fewer troops in Syria than the 1,000 that were present at the time of Trump’s pullout order.
“My expectation is that it will be fewer than we had before,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday, referring to units equipped with heavy armored vehicles that the U.S. hasn’t previously deployed to Syria.
The forces in Syria will be split between the oil mission in Deir ez-Zor and al-Tanf base in the southeast, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley confirmed in the same briefing.
Pentagon officials have put the size of the force staying at al-Tanf in the southeast at about 200. That leaves a margin of fewer than 800 troops that the Pentagon could deploy to Deir ez-Zor without completely undoing the withdrawal.
“That basically gives you a battalion,” said a former senior military officer who has commanded troops in the region. A battalion is a unit of troops that can range in size from about 400 to 1,000, depending on the part of the Army it comes from.
The Pentagon’s troop-count math for Syria has often been fuzzy, however. Just a month before the Pentagon adjusted its troop count to 2,000 in December 2017, for example, it had announced the departure of a Marine artillery unit from the country, suggesting that the real number of troops on the ground had risen even higher than 2,000 during Trump’s first 10 months in office.
The largest part of the oil security force would likely be drawn from an Army armored brigade that is currently deployed to Kuwait as U.S. Central Command’s “theater reserve” force. Part of one of that brigade’s battalions had already been in northern Syria supporting the special operations forces there before the pullout order, albeit without its Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks.
A brigade from the 4th Infantry Division, from Fort Carson, Colo., is currently handing the Kuwait mission over to the North Carolina National Guard’s 30th Armored Brigade as part of a previously scheduled troop rotation. It wasn’t clear whether the troops who have already moved into Deir ez-Zor came from the outgoing brigade, the incoming one or a different unit.
But the underlying value of the presence there will have less to do with oil than with maintaining a relationship on the ground with the Syrian Democratic Force — mostly made up of Kurdish militias — that the U.S. appeared to be abandoning with the pullout, said the former senior military officer.
“Keeping the flag flying in that area is important to let the Kurds know that we’re not completely walking away from them,” he said, adding that Deir ez-Zor “is kind of the heartland” of the remaining Syrian ISIS remnants.
“That’s the place to have that enduring presence. The oil is secondary, tertiary, not even an important factor,” he added. “What is important is to be able to continue to conduct operations against the terrorist cells operating in that part of the Euphrates Valley.”
Keane, the retired Army general, noted that no matter how many troops are deployed, their presence on the ground will also serve as an anchor for U.S. air power, a key part of the U.S. military campaign against ISIS that has shown little sign of ending anytime soon.
That link to fighters, bombers, drones, and helicopter gunships if needed “is much more important than the numbers of U.S. troops,” Keane said. “You don’t have to actually be standing on every oil field.”
The troops and the air power will also act as a deterrent to any move into the area by Syrian government forces or their Russian allies, Esper acknowledged when asked this week if the force’s mission also includes that task.
“The short answer is yes, it presently does, because in that case we want to make sure the SDF does have access to the resources,” Esper said, referring the Kurdish-led SDF.
That’s likely the reason for putting heavy armored vehicles into the province, said the former senior military officer. “We don’t need armor against ISIS, but it will definitely help deter the Russians, the Syrian regime, the Turks from trying to get into that part of Syria,” he said.
The U.S. forces in Deir ez-Zor will be based at two sites about 25 miles from each other, known as Conoco and Green Village, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters Wednesday. But he did not provide any other details about the troop presence or its size, saying only, “We’ll await further decisions of the U.S. government about how that plan is going to look in the long term.”
Syrian state media reported on Wednesday that the Syrian army and Turkish troops clashed near the border town of Ras al Ain.
Erdogan has warned that Turkey could launch a new offensive if YPG fighters do not withdraw from the border.
Turkey-backed rebels said on Tuesday they arrested an undisclosed number of Syrian army soldiers in Tel Hawa, in the Ras al Ain countryside near the Turkish border.
Hours later, Turkey’s defense ministry said 18 people, suspected of belonging to Syrian government forces, had been captured near Ras al Ain.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday that Ankara is in talks with Moscow to hand over the 18 individuals.
U.S. moves in Syria
The movement of U.S. troops and armor in Syria is the latest in U.S. move in the country.
In December 2018, Trump ordered a full withdrawal of the 2,000 troops who had been in Syria advising and fighting alongside mostly Kurdish forces who had routed ISIS.
That announcement prompted the resignation of then-U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Trump relented to pressure from Congress to maintain a force of about 1,000 troops in Syria.
On October 6, Trump ordered a withdrawal of virtually all U.S. troops from Syria, paving the way for Turkey to press an assault against Kurds.
Congress again raised alarms, calling it a betrayal of the Kurds that risked unleashing chaos in the region, to the benefit of Russia and Iran.
Trump’s decision to send troops to protect oil fields in Syria means the U.S. may have as many troops in the country — or potentially more — as when he took office, undermining his repeated pledge to end a “forever war” in the Middle East.
U.S. troop levels rose from 500 when Trump took office to an official Pentagon estimate of 2,000 by the end of 2017. The number fell after the president first took the military by surprise with a full pullout order last December. National security leaders talked Trump down from that into a slower withdrawal that halved the force to 1,000 troops earlier this year.
“We’re out. But we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil,” Trump said Sunday after his speech announcing the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a Delta Force raid. “I want to bring our soldiers back home, but I do want to secure the oil,” he added, summing up the conflicted stance that the Pentagon has capitalized on.
By the time of those remarks, the military had presented Trump with several options for the scope of the presence to stay behind in Deir ez-Zor.
“Options have been briefed to the president as far as the size, the composition, and what they’ll be doing,” a defense official said early Monday, but there’d been “no final determination. That’s still being shaped, the scope and size of the force.”
The U.S. military said last week it was reinforcing its position in Syria with additional assets, including mechanized forces, to prevent oil fields from being taken over by remnants of the Islamic State militant group or others.
Trump said last week a small number of U.S. troops would remain in the area of Syria “where they have the oil”.