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Withdrawal, Huh? At Least 800 US Soldiers Reportedly to Remain in Syria to ‘Secure’ Its Oil Fields

by Tim Korso

The US is keeping a military presence in Syria despite achieving its stated goal of defeating Daesh*, prompting several countries, including Syria itself, to slam it as illegal. The Pentagon has argued that troops will stay in the Arab Republic to defend oil facilities from Daesh* remnants, but Moscow insists this should be done by Syrian forces.

US President Donald Trump announced early in October his intention to bring the US troops stationed in Syria “back home”, but, according to the latest reports, a significant American contingency remains stationed in certain regions of Syria that are controlled by the Kurdish militia.

So, is the withdrawal idea dead and gone? According to the AP, citing anonymous US officials, the White House and Pentagon have decided to keep, per various estimates, up to 800 American soldiers in the Arab Republic to protect the oil fields, which are not currently controlled by Damascus. The territory that they will be tasked with controlling stretches nearly 150 kilometres from Deir ez-Zor to al-Hasakah.

A Sputnik correspondent reports, citing sources in the region, that the US is building a military base near the Syrian town of Rmelan in the al-Hasakah governorate. The latter is located near some 1,300 oil wells. The base is reportedly being built in the direct proximity of these wells and will be four square kilometres in size. Its security will be ensured by both US troops and local Kurdish militia.

The officials didn’t tell the AP how long this “protection” of the oilfields will last for or when the remaining troops will be withdrawn, as per Trump’s earlier promise. Neither the Pentagon, nor the White House has commented on the AP report.

Legal Troubles

The experts, when asked by the AP, pointed out several legal issues that the Pentagon and US troops may encounter if they seek to “keep” the Syrian oil fields, as President Trump described it. While their stay in Syria to prevent Daesh* from capturing these oil facilities falls under the US law Authorisation for Use of Military Force, attempting to stop Damascus from doing so doesn’t. Not to mention the fact that the US was never invited to Syria by its government, nor was it granted a UN mandate to deploy its troops in the country, meaning it has been staying there illegally.

Another legal issue raised by those who spoke to the AP was a lack of clarity regarding how far US troops will go in order to prevent Syrian or Russian forces from seizing control of the oil fields. In recent comments, Moscow slammed Washington’s intent to “secure” Syrian oil and called such actions illegal, arguing that the country’s oil reserves must be controlled and guarded by Damascus.

“Keeping” Syrian Oil

US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria early in October, promising to eventually pull out all American forces from the region. He made a similar promise back at the end of 2018. However, after moving the troops to Iraq, some of them were soon redeployed to Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate. Pentagon chief Mark Esper explained the move by saying that that American troops will be protecting Syrian oil facilities from being re-captured by Daesh* militants.

In comments given to the press on 2 November, US President Donald Trump stated that despite wanting to bring US troops home, Washington will leave some of them in the Arab Republic.

“We want to bring our soldiers home. But we did leave soldiers because we’re keeping the oil. I like oil. We’re keeping the oil”, Trump said.

Moscow has criticised the US decision to deploy its forces to Syria’s oilfields, calling it “illegitimate”. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that these territories should instead be controlled by the Syrian government.

“Syrian oil is a national asset of all Syrians. [Russia] believes that Syrians should control their own natural resources, including oil”, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said.

Previously, the Russian Defence Ministry accused the US military of assisting in operations to smuggle oil out of the country, publishing satellite photos of US-controlled Syrian oilfields as proof.