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On October 24, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper revealed at a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) press conference in Brussels that the US would redeploy troops to oil fields in North-Eastern Syria in order to defend them from ISIS.
The announcement from Esper, who has been US Defence Secretary since July 2019 and previously served as United States Secretary of the Army, is a reversal of President Trump’s earlier command to withdraw all US troops from Syria and represents another fluctuation in rapidly shifting US foreign policy in Syria.
Details of the redeployment
Esper confirmed that there would be a US military presence at the oil fields in North-East Syria. The redeployment will include troops previously scheduled to leave Syria as well as ‘mechanized forces,’ which may include armored vehicles and tanks.
The redeployment of the forces will supplement the existing force of approximately 200 lightly armed troops already stationed at the oil fields. “We are now taking some actions to strengthen our position and to ensure that we can deny ISIS access to the oil fields," Esper added.
Alongside the objective of guarding the oil fields against ISIS, Esper also claimed that a US presence would benefit the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) by giving them access to the revenue and resources involved with the oil fields.
“We want to make sure that SDF does have access to those resources in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops in order to assist us with the defeat ISIS mission," Esper explained.
When making the announcement, which came moments after President Trump tweeted that the troops were coming home, the US Secretary of Defence did not divulge the number of troops that would remain in Syria.
The Wall Street Journal reported that as many as 500 soldiers could remain, which USA Today confirmed by reporting that US armored vehicles and 500 infantry troops have arrived in eastern Syria.
Alongside additional troops stationed at the oil fields, Trump suggested that US companies could control and manage the sites. “What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an Exxon Mobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly," he said.
Details of the redeployment
Following the announcement by the US Secretary of Defence, Trump said that “We’ve secured the oil and, therefore, a small number of US troops will remain in the area where they have the oil."
The decision to redeploy troops to the oil fields appears to be part of a broader strategy to contain the threat of ISIS. Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, said that “there’s a plan coming together from the Joint Chiefs, that I think may work, that may give us what we need to prevent ISIS from coming back around."
Kurdish forces, who were instrumental in stripping ISIS of its territorial gains and military power, suffering 11 000 casualties in the process, welcomed the redeployment of US forces. The Kurds were initially dismayed by the Trump administration’s willingness to withdraw troops from Syria and effectively greenlight a Turkish invasion, calling it a “stab in the back."
Speaking to reporters, Kurdish commander Mervan Qamishli said that “the US presence is good as it is cooperation to eliminate ISIS terrorism and stops foreign ambitions from Syria, Iran, or any others." Further adding, “We stand with any initiative and from any entity, if it’s serving the north Syrian people."
Russia, a country with significant influence in Middle Eastern affairs, has strongly condemned the move. Foreign ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said: “what Washington is doing now, the seizure and control of oil fields in eastern Syria under its armed control, is, quite simply, international state banditry.”
Trump proposes US involvement in Syrian oil industry
Following the redeployment of US forces to oil fields in Syria and the identification of Syria’s oil as a US national security priority, Trump’s suggestion that US companies could control and operate Syrian oil fields has raised concerns.
While it is unclear whether the suggestion will become part of US foreign policy, US oil companies would face major hurdles in setting up operations in Syria. Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron Corp, the two largest US oil companies operating in the Middle East, distanced themselves from the suggestion and declined to comment on the president’s remarks.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham supported the suggestion and implied that any revenue or resources garnered from the operation would benefit regional allies. Graham stated that a US presence at the oil fields is a “win-win.” He added that if a US company could “modernize the oil fields,” the Kurdish-led SDF who captured the fields from ISIS “will get more money.”
Others have condemned the suggestion. Ryan Goodman, a former special legal counsel at the Department of Defense, likened the suggestion to “the international crime of pillage.”
Pillaging is illegal under international law, as per the Geneva Convention, which the US ratified as a treaty in 1955.
Goodman added that “US military commanders who engaged in pillaging Syria’s oil would risk criminal liability under the US War Crimes Act.” The laws were designed “to deter nations from engaging in predatory wars to seize other countries’ natural resources.” The Act, introduced in 1996, made it punishable under US law to commit a “grave breach" of any of the Geneva conventions.
The suggestion of a US company operating in Syria, coupled with the redeployment of US troops to protect the fields, received further condemnation by a former US general. Retired General Barry McCaffrey wrote on Twitter, “WHAT ARE WE BECOMING… PIRATES?" while highlighting that all oil in the area “belongs to Syria."
Before the offset of the Syrian Civil War, Syria produced approximately 385 000 barrels of oil a day. This number is comparable to the amount of oil produced in the US states of Illinois and Utah. This number plunged by 90% to just 40 000 barrels in 2015.
Although Syria is an oil-producing country, it ranks 75th in the world amongst oil-producing nations. Although Syria is an oil-producing country, it ranks 75th in the world amongst oil-producing nations. The oil that it does provide is thought to be of low quality.
The oil fields of Syria took on a new significance during the civil war. It is estimated that at least 75% of Syria’s estimated oil reserves of 2.5 billion barrels originate from the fields of North-Eastern Syria. These fields have played a critical role in financially supporting whoever controls them throughout the Syrian conflict.
Following the expansion of ISIS in the region, the terrorist organization relied on the oil fields to fund their operations. A major factor in ISIS losing all its territory was the deliberate targeting of these fields by the US and its allies.
“A big part of the strategy of defeating ISIS was actually to try to disrupt the oil supply chain, to take out tankers carrying oil, or to destroy any kind of refineries, any sort of ISIS oil operations," said Jeff Colgan.
This is not the first time Trump has shown an interest in the oil reserves of a Middle Eastern nation. During the Iraq War, Trump wanted the US to use Iraqi oil to offset the cost of the conflict. “I said keep the oil,” the president recounted at a press conference on October 27. “If they are going into Iraq, keep the oil. They never did. They never did.”