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US to keep Deir Ezzor oilfields out of Syrian government hands, Esper says

US defense secretary shed light on a confusing reversal to 'secure the oilfields' amid Syria withdrawal

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday, 28 October, that a deployment of additional military forces to Syria’s eastern oilfields is aimed in part at denying them to Russia and the Syrian government.

Answering a question by CNN correspondent Barbara Starr as to whether the deployment mission includes “denying access, preventing Russian or Syrian forces” from accessing the oilfields, Secretary Esper replied, “In short yes, it presently does.”

“We want to make sure the SDF does have access to resources in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat ISIS mission. So that’s our mission, to secure the oilfields,” Esper said.

Esper’s comments shed light on a confusing development in the chaotic drawdown of U.S. forces from northeast Syria after the White House announced on October 9 that U.S. forces would stand down as Turkey launched a military incursion against the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-led Coalition’s main partner force on the ground in the war against Islamic State.

Esper announced the full withdrawal of American troops from the northeast after SDF leadership allegedly reached out to the Syrian government in Damascus for protection from the Turkey-led incursion. The Pentagon later announced a partial reversal to that decision, saying that additional U.S. forces would be deployed to Syria’s eastern oilfields.

“The U.S. is committed to reinforcing our position, in coordination with our SDF partners, in northeast Syria with additional military assets to prevent those oil fields from falling back to into the hands of ISIS or other destabilizing actors,” a Pentagon official said.

In response to Starr’s question on Monday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said, “The fundamental purpose of securing those oilfields is to deny those oilfields access to ISIS in order to prevent ISIS from resurgence, because we are still committed to the counter-ISIS campaign.”

“We don’t want them to resurge, they get a lot of their revenues from that.”

Though the U.S. believes sleeper cells remain, ISIS does not control territory in the Middle Euphrates river valley. The group’s last holdout in the area was assaulted through in March by the SDF and Coalition forces, and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed during a U.S. raid in northwest Syria on Saturday.

The oil and gas fields of Deir Ezzor are a strategic prize of the Syrian conflict. The Coalition bombed the processing facilities for years in an effort to choke off Islamic State’s revenue flow.

In February 2018, hundreds of Russian mercenaries and Syrian-pro regime forces were reportedly killed by American airstrikes after advancing towards the U.S. and SDF-held Conoco gas field near Deir Ezzor. The U.S. claimed it reacted in self-defense.

The SDF controls a semi-autonomous region of Syria’s northeast and has long asked the U.S. to push for its inclusion a negotiated political settlement to the country’s eight-year civil war.

The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has refused to guarantee autonomy to the northeast’s administration, and vowed to take all territory back under centralized control, including the oilfields.

Russia has publicly supported Damascus’ position.

U.S. control of the oilfields briefly caught the attention of Congress last year, with some lawmakers criticizing it as an unjustified expansion and violation the military’s legal mandate to fight ISIS in Syria.

The U.S. mission in Syria is not authorized under international law and rests on American Congressional legislation from 2001.

Esper said Monday that the mission was not indefinite.

“At the end of the day we will be sending troops home. The president made a commitment to do that. But in the meantime we’re going to reinforce and make some other moves to ensure that we can accomplish that mission of securing the oilfields in order to deny access to ISIS.”

UPDATED: More than 200 Russians may have been killed in Coalition strikes against ‘pro-regime’ forces in Syria

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