US set to send troops and tanks to guard Syrian oil fields despite Trump vow to ‘bring soldiers home’

The forces, including the first US use of tanks in the country, will protect the fields in Deir Ezzor against Isis in a reversal welcomed by Kurdish forces

Bel Trew
Middle East Correspondent
Friday 25 October 2019 17:53 BST
US troops in Syria pelted with fruit as they withdraw

The United States is set to deploy hundreds of troops and tanks to guard oil fields in northeast Syria from Isis fighters in another U-turn on President Trump’s original promise to “bring soldiers home”.

The change in plan was confirmed in part by US defence secretary Mark Esper on Friday, who admitted that Washington aims to keep a “reduced presence” in Syria to defend oil facilities.

Citing unnamed US officials, Fox News initially reported Washington was mulling send tanks to Deir Ezzor in northeast Syria for the first time, alongside “hundreds of soldiers”.

This is despite the fact Mr Trump initially ordered most of the 1,000 troops currently deployed in Syria to leave the country. Last week the US even bombed its own base, between Ain Issa and Kobani near the Turkish border, as part of the hasty pullback.

On Friday, Mr Esper revealed that the Pentagon was actually considering repositioning American troops and mechanised forces, which include armoured vehicles and tanks, to help its Kurdish allies ward off Isis around the oil fields.

At a news conference at Nato headquarters in Brussels, Mr Esper did not provide details about the number of troops.

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“We are now taking some actions ... to strengthen our position at Deir Ezzor, to ensure that we can deny Isis access to the oil fields,” Mr Esper said.

“We are reinforcing that position, it will include some mechanised forces,” he added.

As the perfect illustration of Mr Trump’s back-and-forth on the Syria issue, the president issued a eries of tweets on Friday that conflated all of his positions. ”Going well! Isis secured by Kurds with Turkey ready as backup,” he tweeted, despite Kurdish fears over the status of the camps holding Isis members and their families. “I simply say, THE OIL, AND WE ARE BRINGING OUR SOLDIERS BACK HOME, ISIS SECURED!” the president added, despite the announcement that US positions in Syria would be strengthened with more troops.

Kurdish commander Mervan Qamishli told The Independent Kurdish forces welcomed the move after originally feeling betrayed at the US withdrawal.

“The US presence is good as it is cooperation to eliminate Isis terrorism and stops foreign ambitions from Syria, Iran or any others,” he said.

“We stand with any initiative and from any entity if it’s serving the north Syrian people,” he added.

The Trump administration has dramatically flip-flopped on its strategy in northern Syria, where for four years it had been fighting alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat Isis.

In a surprise announcement earlier this month the US president announced a pull back, saying US forces would step aside and not hinder an imminent Turkish attack on Washington’s Kurdish allies.

Days later Ankara launched its controversial cross-border incursion against the Kurds, which has displaced more than 200,000 and seen at least 100 Isis fighters break free from Kurdish-run prisons in the fighting.

Mr Trump, who was accused of effectively green-lighting the operation, defended his decision saying he wanted to disentangle the US from decades of war in the Middle East and bring troops home.

Caught in the crossfire, hundreds of US soldiers were hastily redeployed to Iraq. Shortly afterwards, jets wiped out US military position at the Lafarge Cement Factory, between Ain Issa and Kobani near the Turkish border in the retreat.

On Wednesday Mr Trump backed a Russia-Turkey brokered ceasefire in Syria and confirmed US troops “were getting out”.

He urged Syria’s neighbours to take on the mantle of securing the Middle East, adding: “Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.”

But amid fears Isis could stage a comeback, the US also confirmed it planned to maintain a small 200-strong foreign the southern city of Tanf as well as a small force to guard the oil fields in the north.

Mr Esper said his Turkish counterpart had told him that Ankara had recaptured some of 100 Isis militants who are believed to have escaped from prison in Syria as a result of the Turkish incursion.

The partial withdrawal of the US has widened the space for Russian influence in Syria.

Vladimir Putin, who is a close ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, brokered the latest ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds, which includes joint Russian-Turkish patrols of the border.

So far around 300 more Russian military police have arrived in Syria, the Russian defence ministry said on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that about 180 vehicles carrying over 1,000 Syrian government forces arrived to Kobani city, on the border with Turkey, also as part of the accord.

Outgunned, the Kurdish forces were forced to strike a deal with the Syrian government to help defend the borders from Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies.

Under the Moscow deal, regime forces would help the Kurds withdraw past a 32km wide buffer zone along the borders with Turkey.

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