US to send reinforcements to Syria oil fields
US President Donald Trump earlier this month promised to withdraw the country's troops from northeastern Syria, a controversial move that allowed Turkey to launch its long-hoped-for offensive against the Syrian Kurdish forces unimpeded.
But US policy again U-turned this week, with Trump pledging that some troops would remain in order to secure the oil fields in the region from a possible IS takeover.
Much of northeast Syria - including the oil-rich area of Deir ez-Zour - was held by IS before the group was finally wrestled from its last territorial stronghold by the formerly US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) earlier this year.
Trump has repeatedly flip-flopped over the withdrawal decision over the past few weeks, at first being seen to have given Turkey the go-ahead for its invasion and then pledging sanctions against Ankara, on which he later went back.
Critics of the move had warned that a Turkish invasion could embolden IS sleeper cells in the region and facilitate mass jail breaks of imprisoned members of the extremist group, strengthening its numbers and possibly enabling it to recapture swathes of territory in Syria.
Trump is now apparently heeding those warnings - although critics of the US say the pledge to secure Syrian oil fields is an example of "oil imperialism".
Adding armoured reinforcements to the area could mean sending several hundred more US troops, the Associated Press reported.
Read more: Syria Weekly: Trump U-turn could see US troops guarding Syrian oil fields
A similar number are currently in the process of being withdrawn from an area closer to Turkey's border where Russian troops are currently filling the vacuum, as part of a deal to enforce a buffer zone free of the Kurdish forces.
The defense secretary described the added force as "mechanized," which means it likely will include armoured vehicles such as Bradley armored infantry carriers and possibly tanks, although details were still be worked out.
Such reinforcements would introduce a new dimension to the US military presence, which has largely been comprised of special operations forces not equipped with tanks or other armoured vehicles.
Speaking seperately on Friday, Trump said he was "getting our troops out" of Syria, without mentioning Esper's announcement.
"We are doing well in Syria, with Turkey and everybody else that we're dealing with," the president said. "We have secured the oil... We have a couple of people that came knocking, we said don't knock. And I think I would say that things are going very well."
White House officials would not clarify whom he was referring to as "knocking."
The US special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said on Friday he had spoken with a Russian official about an unspecified issue in Syria's oil region.
"We are currently very concerned about certain developments in the south, in the Deir ez-Zour area," he said. "I've talked to my Russian colleague about that and we're having other contacts with the Russians concerning that situation. We think it is under control now."
Asked about America's shifting Syria strategy, Esper said the US mission has always been to prevent the resurgence of IS.
"That mission remains unchanged," he said. "If IS has access to the resources, and therefore the means to procure arms or to buy fighters or whatever else they do, then it means it makes it more difficult to defeat IS."
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