From Operation Inherent Resolve to Operation “secure the oil” in Syria?

The complex battlefield that now includes not only a Turkish offensive and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, but also the Syrian regime, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Russians.

 TURKEY-BACKED Syrian rebel fighter gestures to the camera at the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, Monday.  (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
TURKEY-BACKED Syrian rebel fighter gestures to the camera at the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, Monday.
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
US troops in Syria are trying to execute an orderly withdrawal. It is supposed to take several weeks. They are coming out of places like Manbij and Qamishli, where they have been for years. It is a difficult process to extricate 1,000 fighters from a complex battlefield that now includes not only a Turkish offensive and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, but also the Syrian regime, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Russians. And, somewhere monitoring it all, are Iranian agents wondering when they can get their piece of the pie.
Operation Inherent Resolve, the Combined Joint Task Force that was set up to defeat ISIS in 2014 is ostensibly an 80-member coalition of countries and other entities. However very few of the members actually were involved in the Syrian side of operations. The French and the UK sent special forces. Others conducted some airstrikes. Mostly the coalition members have stayed on the Iraqi side of the line. That is now where US troops are repositioning as well. But several hundred may remain in Syria as part of a new plan that envisions them working to protect oil fields near the Euphrates.
US President Donald Trump claimed on Monday that the US didn’t want to leave troops in a dangerous area, but said that now the US felt it was necessary to “secure the oil” and that the US would leave troops at the Tanf outpost near the Jordanian border because Israel and Jordan had asked the US to. The references to the oil has left some people perplexed in Washington, Syria and elsewhere. But this is the latest US plan, in a world where the US administration and its own military don’t seem to coordinate these plans or fully strategize together. The US wants to deny the oil fields to ISIS or “others.” By others it may be a reference to the Syrian regime. In February 2018, a group of Syrian regime-backed fighters and Russian contractors tried to seize oil facilities near the Euphrates and were fought off by the US and the SDF.
Most observers note that Syria doesn’t have a lot of oil, so it’s not entirely clear what the point of “securing” the oil is. We do know that on October 18 there were rumors the Syrian regime had sought to deploy towards the Omar oil field and Conoco gas facilities. That requires them crossing the river from Deir Ezzor and moving towards areas that US forces are already known to be in. The regime would not risk a battle with the US after the mauling in 2018.
The US mission in Syria was to defeat ISIS. Over time there were discussions about transitioning to “stabilization” and even using eastern Syria as leverage against Iran. The US has jettisoned most of those ideas now, in favor of a tailored mission that envisions holding on to some oil fields. To reduce the US footprint in Syria to operations near the oil fields will require protecting a 125 km. corridor along the eastern side of the Euphrates from areas opposite Deir Ezzor to the border across from Albukamal. This is an area the SDF and US forces had defeated ISIS in battles around Baghouz in March 2019.
Now it appears this will be the last operations of the US in Syria. The US has a handy border crossing to use to get back into Iraq, but it has one problem on the other side of the river. Iranian-backed elements among the Iraqi Shi’ite militias have influence near Albukamal. These groups, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, are hostile to the US. In the summer of 2018 a mysterious airstrike ripped apart the Kata’ib base. In the last months other airstrikes have been reported at an alleged Iranian base near Albukamal. The border crossing was recently reopened to great fanfare by the Syrian regime. So US forces hemmed into this area, between ISIS cells in the desert and a lonely road near the river, will be exposed to eavesdropping by the Iranians on the other side, and potential ISIS threats from the sleeper cells in the desert.
The US will have to work with local Arab tribes to provide security around the area, tribes such as the Shaitat and others, some of whom are affiliated with the SDF. Whether the officials in Washington who decided to keep an eye on the oil have fully thought this mission through, it is unclear.


Tags oil