As Russians extend footprint, US troops move back into Syria
ISTANBUL - In a yet another reversal of US policy in Syria that could trigger new tensions with Moscow, Damascus and Ankara, Washington is sending US troops back into the country only weeks after President Donald Trump ordered their withdrawal.
The deployment follows repeated statements by Trump that the United States would secure oil fields in eastern Syria to protect them against possible attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS).
The goal of the new US mission was “to defeat ISIS remnants, protect critical infrastructure & deny ISIS access to revenue sources,” the US-led anti-ISIS coalition posted on Twitter.
The coalition published pictures of US armoured vehicles being loaded on to a transport plane for the deployment in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province. The Iraqi-Kurdish news platform Rudaw reported several US military convoys had entered Syria from Iraq.
Trump shocked his own supporters and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, a crucial US ally in the fight against ISIS, on October 6 by declaring that the approximately 1,000 US troops deployed in Syria would leave the country.
Three days later, Turkey, a sworn enemy of the YPG, launched a cross-border operation to push the Kurdish fighters back from the Turkish-Syrian border and to create a “safe zone” to resettle millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey.
Once the new US deployments are complete, Washington could have as many as 900 soldiers in Syria, just 100 fewer than before Trump’s withdrawal order, the New York Times reported. US officials said one goal of the troop return would be to safeguard oil revenue for the YPG to enable the Kurdish militia to keep guarding ISIS prisoners.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said on state television that Trump’s decision to keep US troops in the Kurdish-held areas of Syria showed that Washington was a colonial power that was doomed to leave once Syrians resist their occupation as in Iraq. However, he also said Syria could not stand up to a great power such as the United States and that ending the presence of US troops on Syrian soil was not achievable soon.
Russia, Assad’s main international partner, expressed outrage at Trump’s claim to the oil, calling it “state banditry.” In the meanwhile, its troops extended their footprint in Syria by taking part in joint patrols with Turkish forces.
The return of the US troops could provide protection for the YPG against Turkey. Ilham Ehmed, president of the political arm of the YPG-dominated Syrian Defence Forces, accused Turkey of violating the ceasefire in north-eastern Syria with repeated attacks.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a telephone conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to demand Ankara’s compliance with the ceasefire agreed by Ankara and Washington in mid-October.
“The secretary noted our position requiring that the Turkish military, the Turkish-supported Syrian opposition forces, and the withdrawal of YPG forces be in accordance with the statement regarding the safe zone,” the US State Department said in a statement.