U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has confirmed reports that a new U.S. force will be sent to eastern Syria to protect oil fields from Islamic State (IS) militants, adding that the deployment will include armored vehicles and possibly tanks.
Esper’s remarks in Brussels on October 25 indicating that the force will be "mechanized" suggests that several hundred U.S. troops will be deployed to the region.
The mission will take place even as some 1,000 U.S. troops are being withdrawn from a separate mission near the Turkish border, where troops from Turkey and Russia will conduct joint patrols in areas previously held by U.S. troops and allied Syrian Kurdish militias.
A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, responded to Esper's announcement on October 26 by saying that U.S. troops have no legitimate right to guard the oil fields near Deir el-Zor in eastern Syria.
"Neither international law, nor the U.S. legislation, nothing can set any legitimate objective for U.S. troops to guard and defend Syria's hydrocarbon deposits from Syria itself and its people," Konashenkov said.
Esper's confirmation of the fresh U.S. military deployments came days after President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from along the border area to allow Turkish forces to set up a so-called “safe zone” free of Kurdish fighters. Ankara considers the U.S.-allied Kurdish troops to be terrorists.
Trump’s decision was blasted by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and others, with many raising fears that some of the estimated 10,000 IS prisoners being held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could escape during the turmoil.
Esper did not provide further details of the deployment. But he said the force will be "mechanized," meaning it likely will feature armored vehicles such as Bradley armored infantry carriers and possibly tanks.
Military experts said that tanks and armored vehicles require a large supply and logistical support accompaniment, meaning that the armored deployment might be short.
Esper has said the main goal of a continued U.S. troop presence would be to ensure that IS fighters are contained and unable to gain control of the oil fields and the revenue they generate.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, said in Geneva on October 25 that he had spoken to a Russian official about an unspecified issue regarding Syria's oil region.
"We are currently very concerned about certain developments in the south, in the Deir el-Zor area," Jeffrey 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."