Russia slams U.S. for 'training militants,' and 'plundering oil' in Syria

Head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Department, Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi, made the comments to a Russian Defense Ministry briefing.

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad carry the national flag as they ride on motorcycles in Qusair, Syria after the Syrian army took control from rebel fighters, June 5, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad carry the national flag as they ride on motorcycles in Qusair, Syria after the Syrian army took control from rebel fighters, June 5, 2013
In a harsh series of comments reported by Russia’s Tass News Agency on Monday, Russia claimed that the US was involved in “plundering Syrian oil facilities” and “training militants” in Syria.
Although Russia has in the past condemned America’s role in Syria, the statement reflects increased attention from Moscow on the issue.
Head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Department Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi made the comments at a Defense Ministry briefing. The comments come as Russia backs the regime of President Bashar Assad against the remaining rebel and extremist groups in Idlib, and as Russia and Turkey coordinate more closely on defense issues after Ankara acquired the S-400 anti-aircraft system from Moscow. The Syrian regime, Russia and Turkey all oppose the US role in Syria.
Rudskoi claimed that the “US military is training up to 2,700 militants from different groups at the al-Tanf base in Syria.” In operation since 2015, the base was envisioned as an anti-ISIS training facility. However, the Syrian regime – backed by Russia and Iran – eventually surrounded the base, located near the Jordanian border in Syria.
The US maintains a 55-km. exclusion zone around the base and has warned the Syrian regime from encroaching on the zone. When US President Donald Trump said that Washington would withdraw from Syria in December, there were thoughts that the base would be shuttered; however, it still stands, and some have asserted that it helps interdict Iran’s attempt to carve out a corridor of influence from the Iraqi border to Damascus. This is a vital concern for Israel, which has repeatedly said that it strongly opposes Iranian bases near the Golan.
Russia says that the US has built up several “large armed formations” including an “Army of Arab Tribes.” They are “airlifted beyond the Euphrates River,” the Russians claim, asserting that the US trains fighters in al-Tanf and moves them elsewhere. “The most trained saboteurs are delivered to the territories controlled by government troops to destabilize the situation and prevent the strengthening of the Syrian government,” Rudskoi said.
Col. James Rawlinson, in a statement from the coalition, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), responded that "Nearly 7.7 million people and over 110,000 square kilometers have been liberated from Daesh's brutal rule, and all 80 members of the Global Coalition will continue to enable our partner forces in the enduring defeat of Daesh. CJTF-OIR works by, with, and through partner forces to defeat Daesh in designated areas of Iraq and Syria, and sets conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability."
He added that "despite losing their territory, Daesh remains a threat as they try to reconsolidate their resources and resurge. They do not respect borders, which makes them a threat to the region as well as globally through proxies and franchise operations."
Russia claims that the US-trained fighters harm Syrian oil and gas infrastructure, and “conduct terrorist attacks.” Russia says the groups have been seen in “communities of al-Suwayda, Palmyra and Abu Kamal.” The reference to Suwayda is not accidental, as there have been incidents in the area since ISIS was defeated, and it appears that the Syrian regime prefers to blame America rather than local extremists.
RUSSIA ALSO claims that US “private military companies” have sent 3,500 personnel to Syria and are “plundering Syrian oil facilities.” Rudskoi asserts that “US structures in Syria are involved in plundering oil facilities and deposits in the area across the Euphrates that belong to the legitimate Syrian government.” Russia named the Conaco, Al-Omar and Tanak oil fields as being the victims of this US transgression. “A criminal scheme of Syrian crude cross-border deliveries is in effect.”
In Moscow’s estimate, the money earned smuggling oil is used to maintain “illegal armed formations” and “bribe sheikhs” under the cover of the anti-ISIS coalition. It goes as far as to claim that oil seized from ISIS is now being sold by the Americans. “In exchange for assistance in oil smuggling, the United States is beefing up both Kurdish and Arab formations with arms, and they subsequently use them against each other,” Rudskoi said.
The comments can be seen as a warning by Russia regarding the US role in eastern Syria and al-Tanf. In recent weeks, Turkey has asserted that it will carry out an operation against what it claims are groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in eastern Syria. Ankara believes that these groups are linked to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are the main US partners on the ground.
Meanwhile, Washington has been working to stabilize eastern Syria after the defeat of ISIS in March, amid desires by the Trump administration to draw down forces. The US wants Turkey to observe a safe zone on the border, and the UK and France to commit more forces.
The US is in a bind since it doesn’t want to abandon eastern Syria and especially the Kurdish fighters who led the battle against ISIS. Amid US-Iran tensions, Washington doesn’t want instability caused by a Turkish operation or Russian and Syrian regime meddling in eastern Syria.
The accusations that US private contractors are smuggling oil seems to contradict different reports earlier this year in The Wall Street Journal that US partners on the ground are also selling oil to the Assad regime in Damascus. The reality is that those in opposition to the Syrian Democratic Forces – but which support the Syrian rebels and Turkey – tend to assert that Kurdish groups sell oil to Assad. Moscow wants to discredit the US role by claiming that the oil is being plundered for America’s profit.
As is often the case in eastern Syria, the different players have conflicting agendas. One agenda seeks to undermine the SDF and the US role by claiming that the Kurds are alienating local Arab tribes and that the tribes are “restless.” Another wants to claim that the tens of thousands of ISIS members detained after the group’s defeat in March are not being cared for correctly at al-Hol camp and other places, which is either resulting in a new rise of ISIS or unfair conditions for its members.
There are also those who claim that eastern Syria is being run by PKK members and is a threat to Turkey. And finally, some claim the area is being run by the US to undermine the Assad regime and plunder Syria’s wealth as part of a conspiracy to weaken the government in Damascus.
As with most things in the Middle East, each of the outlandish claims only have nuggets of reality contained within them. There is no evidence that the groups trained at al-Tanf are particularly effective or that the US and its partners on the ground can resurrect the oil fields around Omar, considering the need for major investment which is lacking in eastern Syria.
A query to the US-led coalition regarding Russia’s claims was not answered.