The U.S. mission in Syria has morphed far beyond counterterrorism operations and now puts American forces in a position where they could battle Russian troops for control of Syrian oil.
A day after President Trump announced a successful raid that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Pentagon officials said the fight against the terrorist group is far from over, and they stressed that the military will continue searching out ISIS leaders across Syria.
They also confirmed a major shift in the broader U.S. strategy inside the war-torn country, one that analysts say represents a dangerous example of “mission creep” away from the initial American goal in Syria to defeat ISIS. Despite Mr. Trump’s efforts to pull American forces from a “forever war” in Syria, Pentagon leaders said the mission to protect vital oil fields from ISIS has expanded and now includes a directive to keep anyone — including the Russian military and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s forces — away from the energy reserves.
The new policy sets up the potential for American troops to clash with Russian forces for control of the strategically vital area. At a Pentagon press conference Monday, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was asked whether an element of the plan to redeploy U.S. personnel to the oil fields includes keeping the resource out of the hands of Russians or Syrian forces.
“The short answer is yes, it presently does,” Mr. Esper said. “We want to make sure the [Syrian Democratic Forces] has access to the resources in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat of ISIS.”
Although the prospect of a U.S.-Russian fight in northeastern Syria seems unlikely, the fact that the Trump administration would open the door to such a scenario is deeply concerning, analysts said.
“It’s highly dangerous to conduct foreign policy like this,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Washington think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies who tracks counterterrorism operations extensively. “It puts us at risk of … potentially butting heads with the Russians. That’s a concern. It should be a concern for everyone. And we shouldn’t make decisions like this lightly.
“That is the very definition of mission creep,” he added.
Military officials confirmed that U.S. troops have begun their mission to protect Syria’s vital oil region, which at its peak produced nearly 400,000 barrels a day, according to Oilprice.com. That production has dropped significantly during Syria’s civil war.
“We’re keeping the oil — remember that,” Mr. Trump said during a speech Monday to police chiefs in Chicago. “I’ve always said that: ‘Keep the oil.’ We want to keep the oil. $45 million a month? Keep the oil. We’ve secured the oil.”
It’s not clear how many American forces will be stationed in northeastern Syria to guard the oil and how long they will remain there. Mr. Esper said he expects the force to be smaller than the roughly 2,000 troops who were in Syria until just weeks ago.
“At the end of the day, my expectation is it’ll be fewer than what we had before and they’ll be going home,” he said.
The president this month ordered all American forces out of northern Syria ahead of a Turkish military offensive against the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS. The administration ultimately brokered a cease-fire between the two sides, and the deal opened the door to an increased Russian military presence inside Syria.
Russian forces are now conducting patrols along the Syria-Turkey border.
After ordering the withdrawal, Mr. Trump adjusted course and said the U.S. would guard Syria’s oil reserves to keep the crude out of the hands of ISIS, which has relied on oil revenue to fund its terrorist operations across the Middle East and Africa. The president also has talked openly about making a deal with major U.S. energy companies to ramp up Syrian oil production.
Military officials seemed to downplay the notion of a clash with Russia over Syrian fuel. They said the primary mission will be to prevent ISIS from using the oil to fund a resurgence after al-Baghdadi’s demise.
“They get a lot of their revenues from that. We are still committed to the counter-ISIS campaign,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
Moscow has condemned the effort to wall off Syria’s valuable oil reserves. Officials said the U.S. has no right to the fuel and that it belongs to Mr. Assad’s government. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Saturday that the U.S. policy amounts to “international state banditism,” as quoted by Russia’s Sputnik news agency.
Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders said the death of al-Baghdadi does not end the American-led mission against ISIS.
“Our mission in Syria today remains the same as it was when we first began operations in 2014: to enable the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Mr. Esper said. “Baghdadi’s death will not rid the world of terrorism or end the ongoing conflict in Syria.”
Analysts say the Islamic State has surely made plans to install a successor to al-Baghdadi, who oversaw the group’s rise into a religious “caliphate” that at its peak controlled huge swaths of Iraq and Syria. The U.S. this year declared victory over that physical caliphate, though the ISIS ideology remains alive and well, with “provinces” of support through the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Analysts also say the group likely will try to mount attacks against U.S. or European targets in an attempt to prove it has not been fully defeated.
“The most obvious way the Islamic State can show it’s still relevant is to conduct an attack somewhere in the West. Ideally, [from their perspective,] it would conduct an attack in the United States,” Mr. Roggio said. “These guys stay in the game until they’re dead.”