The Pentagon is having a tough time giving a good reason for its recent decision to keep U.S. troops in Syria. Officially, they claim that it will stem a potential resurgence of the Islamic State. But there’s far more to this move than keeping a broken ISIS at bay. For Washington, stopping Moscow and Damascus from gaining control of the oil fields in Deir Ezzor is a major priority. “What we’re hoping to do is something to deter the Russians and the Syrians from getting into that area,” a Trump administration official told Al Monitor.
Moreover, Iran hawks within the Trump administration have long advocated for moving U.S. forces to Eastern Syria to serve as a bulwark against Tehran’s influence in the country. Omar Abu Layla, an activist and journalist in Deir Ezzor, told The National Interest that U.S. Special Envoy James Jeffery’s team had assured him months ago that the United States would only leave the province once it had rid Syria of Iran-backed forces.
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Trump first announced a U.S. troop withdrawal in December 2018. But instead of providing their commander-in-chief with a plan for an orderly exit on America’s terms, members of the national security apparatus acted as though the president’s decision didn’t matter. Washington continued to offer the Kurds unrealistic promises of remaining in Northeastern Syria indefinitely. It also pressured them to destroy their fortifications near the border with Turkey and urged them not to strike a deal with Moscow and Damascus.
As Aaron Stein of the Foreign Policy Research Institute pointed out, this attempt to roll back the president’s orders for a Syria withdrawal helped bring about the current crisis. Washington and its Syrian Democratic Forces partners found themselves completely unprepared to deal with Turkey’s offensive in Northeastern Syria, even though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had long signaled that such an operation was forthcoming. When Ankara finally launched its Operation Peace Spring on Oct. 10, American forces were forced to withdraw under Turkish fire and to even bomb their old bases on their way out.
The United States risks finding itself in the middle of another such crisis by remaining in Syria. Deir Ezzor is fraught with dangers for U.S. troops. The Assad regime has long hoped to regain the area’s oilfields, which are some of Syria’s most lucrative, to fund its post-war reconstruction. Before the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the Deir Ezzor fields produced nearly a third of the country’s oil.
Could Damascus launch an attack on U.S. troops in Deir Ezzor? As a recent RealClearPublicAffairs report notes,“[t]he multifaceted nature of the Syrian civil war and the fog of war create various opportunities for unintentional clashes or small skirmishes that could trigger larger conflicts.” The proximity of American and Syrian government forces certainly creates risks.
While such a move would undoubtedly be a massive gamble for Assad, it’s happened before. In February 2018, U.S. troops and the SDF beat back an offensive by Syrian government forces and Russian paramilitaries on the Conoco oilfield near Deir Ezzor. While it successfully held off a limited attack then, the United States would have a much harder time defeating a more sustained assault now.
After all, who will be the United States’ local partners in Deir Ezzor? Although the SDF has agreed to join American forces in guarding the oilfields, after Turkey’s military operation, its capabilities are far more limited and its attitude toward Washington is far more distrustful. Moreover, the region has been the site of anti-Kurdish protests by its Arab inhabitants -- a fact that is likely to further reduce the SDF’s effectiveness.
That leaves the United States with little choice but to rely on the Deir Ezzor Military Council, one of the most unsavoury and ill-disciplined rebel factions, for support.
Back on Oct. 13, Trump had the right idea. He declared the withdrawal of all 1,000 U.S. troops from Syria. Yet it only took his administration a week to completely reverse course. On October 21, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that the United States would maintain a military presence in Deir Ezzor. According to some recent predictions, the total number of U.S. troops in Syria after Trump’s “withdrawal” could end up being as high as 900.
So, then, America’s last stand in Syria has begun. Less than a battalion of U.S. troops must hold the line against more numerous enemies in a territory far from any friendly bases. The local coalition supporting them is fractured and unlikely to be effective on the battlefield.
Turkey’s military operation is over, but another storm is brewing.
Dimitri Simes Jr. is a Young Voices contributor, writing on international affairs and defense policy. Follow him on Twitter @DimitriASimes. The views expressed are the author's own.