The Pentagon is preparing to send tanks and armored vehicles to Syrian oil fields, according to a U.S. official – a stunning reversal of President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the war-torn country after he declared victory over ISIS.
The deployment of heavy armor to Syria would represent a significant escalation in the fight, requiring a contingent of additional troops to operate and maintain the vehicles, as well as forces to protect their bases.
Earlier this month, Trump ordered that virtually all of the 1,000 U.S. troops be withdrawn from Syria, a move met with bipartisan condemnation as an abandonment of Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS.
A Defense Department official said the Pentagon is sending additional forces to northeastern Syria to prevent the oil fields from falling back into the hands of ISIS. Both officials were not authorized to speak publicly.
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The move represents an acknowledgement that ISIS remains a threat despite Trump’s declaration that the militant group has been vanquished. Monday, Trump backtracked on his order that all U.S. forces be withdrawn from Syria, saying a “small” number of troops would remain.
“I’m trying to get out of wars. We may have to get in wars, too,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting Monday.
By Thursday, the Pentagon was planning for a significant escalation.
“Very, very confusing U.S. policy,” said Seth Jones, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Kurdish forces controlled much of northeastern Syria until two weeks ago. After an Oct. 6 phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey invaded Syria, pushing the Kurds south.
Under a U.S.-brokered cease-fire, the Kurdish fighters agreed to retreat deeper into Syria, and Turkey agreed to stop its assault.
Now Russian troops, which are in Syria to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and Turkish forces are operating in the region previously patrolled by U.S. and Kurdish forces.
Expert: Move aimed at Russia and Syria, not ISIS
Sending Abrams battle tanks and Bradley armored vehicles would mark a new stage in the five-year campaign against ISIS. Newsweek first reported the plans to send armor to the region.
The composition of the additional forces and the type of equipment to be sent to Syria is still being worked out, the U.S. official told USA TODAY. Placing heavily armored vehicles in Syria would require more logistical personnel to support them than the previous force of American commandos needed, the official said.
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The deployment of armor is aimed at Russia and Syria, not ISIS, said Nicholas Heras, an expert on Syria with the Center for a New American Security. He said the U.S-led coalition against ISIS had succeeded in keeping oil from the militant group, using a combination of U.S.-led airstrikes and the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up largely of Kurds, on the ground.
“This move would either indicate that the U.S. military believes that it cannot depend on the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) to protect the oil fields, and instead cut a deal with Russia and Assad behind America’s back, or that the U.S. expects Assad and Russia to try to take the oil by force,” Heras said.
“Pure and simple,” he said, “the Pentagon is making contingencies for a big fight with Russia for Syria’s oil.”