President Trump pulled a 180 Monday and said he'll keep troops in Syria after all — but to defend oil fields, not the Kurds.
After all, he said, we never agreed to protect them forever.
Trump told reporters in a Cabinet meeting that despite his recent pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, a limited contingent would remain to secure oil fields in the east of the country.
“We need to secure the oil,” Trump said.
Keeping troops in Syria would represent a whiplash policy reversal after Trump announced earlier this month that he was bringing all 1,000 U.S. troops in northern Syria “back home.” In fact, most of the troops have been redeployed to Iraq, with a “residual force” of about 200 now set to remain in eastern Syria, according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
The U.S. pullout from northern Syria has exposed Syrian Kurds — a valuable U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS — to a military offensive by Turkey, which views them as linked to Kurdish militants waging an insurgency in Turkey. Trump’s latest comments — prioritizing oil over loyalty to an ally — is only likely to inflame Kurdish anger at their abandonment by the U.S., which boiled over Monday with Kurdish citizens pelting U.S. military vehicles with vegetables as they withdrew to Iraq.
U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 120 civilians have been killed since Turkey launched its offensive on Oct. 9, and about 300,000 displaced by the fighting.
But Trump made no apologies Monday for his decision to cut off his allies, who lost 11,000 fighters in the battle against ISIS.
“We fought with them for three and a half to four years. We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Where's an agreement that said we have to stay in the Middle East for the rest of humanity, for the rest of civilization to protect the Kurds?”
He offered to cut the Kurds in on any profits made by potential oil exports from Syria. “We’ll work something out with the Kurds so that they have some money, so that they have some cash flow. Maybe we’ll get one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly.”
However, former administration officials say any plans for the U.S. to profit from Syrian oil would face considerable hurdles, not least legal ones. “Oil, like it or not, is owned by the Syrian state,” Brett McGurk, the administration’s former special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, told a Washington think tank Monday.
“It [is] just illegal for an American company to go and seize and exploit these assets.”
The Turkish offensive against has been temporarily halted by a U.S.-brokered 120-hour ceasefire, due to expire at 10 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET) Tuesday. Ahead of the deadline, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Tuesday that there were still 1,300 Syrian Kurdish fighters who were yet to evacuate a so-called “safe zone” in northeastern Syria. He said Turkey would resume its attack “with more determination” if the fighters had not left by then.
Erdogan is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a key backer of the Syrian regime — in the Russian resort of Sochi Tuesday for emergency talks on the conflict. Ahead of the talks, Erdogan said the meeting would “create the opportunity to discuss peace in a strong manner.”
Aid groups say they are seeing a rise in civilians fleeing across the border into Iraq in anticipation of renewed fighting as the deadline approaches. More than 7,000 have crossed into Kurdish-governed territory in neighboring Iraq so far, said the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“We're seeing hundreds arriving into Iraq every day and we expect more to arrive, not only because of the fighting but also because of the fear of what is going to happen next,” said the group’s Iraq country director Rishana Haniffa.
Cover: American military convoy stops near the town of Tel Tamr, north Syria, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. Kurdish-led fighters and Turkish-backed forces clashed sporadically Sunday in northeastern Syria amid efforts to work out a Kurdish evacuation from a besieged border town, the first pull-back under the terms of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire. (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad)