The US announced it would withdraw its troops in northern Syria from border areas with Turkey on 7 October, with US President Donald Trump tweeting the decision several times and triggering intense debate in US decision-making circles about the necessity and feasibility of the withdrawal.
Trump then changed his mind, and US troops redeployed in northern and eastern Syria, demonstrating his confusion on the Syria issue and confirming the disarray of viewpoints between the US Congress, some US army generals and the White House.
It also hinted at a miscalculation, since Turkey was able to accomplish all it wanted from its Operation Peace Spring in Syria, expelling the forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to a depth of 30 km inside Syria.
Trump reversed his original decision to withdraw from north-east Syria, however, and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper announced on 25 October that reinforcements were on their way to areas where oil reserves are located, including Hasakah and Deir Al-Zor. US tanks and armoured vehicles were sent to guard these areas to prevent the Islamic State (IS) group, Iran, or any other destabilising forces from taking control of them.
On 10 November, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley revealed that around 500 US soldiers would remain in northern Syria. “There will certainly be less than one thousand [soldiers],” he said. “There will be between 500 and 600.”
Accordingly, US troops deployed once again in eastern Syria, and went to oil locations around Deir Al-Zor, including the wells at Al-Hamadah, Al-Rees, Al-Alqa and other places. They removed local entrepreneurs working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been accused of selling oil to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad through the Al-Katerji Group owned by an individual close to the regime.
US troops took control of these locations and put them under heavy guard. They warned against selling fuel to the regime in an attempt to regulate trade and the transportation of oil to the regime.
The area east of the Euphrates in Syria holds 90 per cent of the country’s oil and half its gas reserves, and it has been under Kurdish control for the past three years after it was seized from IS with US help.
These forces, according to reports, sell oil and gas to the regime. Syrian oil was guarded by Kurdish forces allied with the US, and the situation of Syrian oil was not impacted by the Turkish invasion, since the US-led Coalition is in control of the oil and gas wells in eastern Syria, and it looks as if it will remain that way.
Troops guarding the wells remain in place, and it does not seem they will withdraw or surrender their positions. The issue is to prevent oil from being smuggled to the regime by Kurdish troops.
In Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir Al-Zor provinces there are some 20 oil wells, 11 of which are under SDF control and have a production capacity greater than the wells under regime control. This means that these Kurdish forces control 80 per cent of oil and gas production in Syria at a profit of around $378 million annually. This helps them to buy weapons and remain in control of the areas they seized several years ago.
After the US announced that its troops would return to Syria and monitor the oil wells, the transport of goods between the two sides of the Euphrates stopped because local traders were worried about the delivery of oil to regime middlemen.
Traders and middlemen are now quarrelling about the halt in a trade that was valued at more than $100,000 a day. The price of oil has also dropped east of the Euphrates River because sales to the regime have been suspended.
However, oil alone is not the only reason the US reversed its decision to withdraw its troops from Syria. This is a strategic move to avoid removing the US foothold in the East Mediterranean region. This is confirmed by the fact that US military bases have continued operating as normal, and US troops have returned to the two bases they had evacuated. There are also reports that the US plans on establishing a new military base in Syria soon.
Ahmed Al-Hamadah, a Syrian military analyst, believes oil is not the main reason for the US troops returning. “The US government disagrees with Trump’s decisions. I don’t think oil is the main reason why the US troops are returning. Washington has several reasons to come back to northern and eastern Syria, most notably blocking oil revenues to the regime and Russia. Remaining in the region also means it will participate in a political solution to the crisis. The presence of US troops in Syria puts pressure on Russia and the regime and secures sources of income for the SDF,” he said.
The last reason Al-Hamadah gave was a reminder of “the high cost of supporting the Kurdish troops,” which Trump talked about when he was defending his decision to withdraw the US troops on 7 October. In a series of tweets, Trump said that “the Kurds fought with us, and in return they have received huge amounts of money and equipment. They have been fighting Turkey for decades.”
“It is time for us to leave these silly unending wars, most of which are tribal,” Trump wrote.
Waleed Hassan, a political analyst, said that “it is difficult to believe that the US will leave Syria, since it has not and will not leave Iraq. The Middle East is a key strategic location, and anyone who controls it can control it in its entirety, including its wealth and human resources. The US military presence in Syria achieves several strategic goals, including maintaining the balance of power in the region to serve US goals and those of its key ally Israel.”
The area where the US troops are at present is rich in oil and gas resources and includes camps and detention centres for IS members and their families. It also borders Iraq and is a key strategic, military and economic region because it blocks Iran’s path from intervening in Syria and its plan to create a “Shiite Crescent” to the Mediterranean.
Developments in northern and eastern Syria and the readiness of Russian and regime forces to grab opposition areas have made the US feel that someone else is trying to remove it from the game and render it ineffectual in Syria.
It has thus reassessed the situation, and the Pentagon has received the green light to deploy US troops once again. It is likely that these will now remain in Syria until all Middle Eastern issues have been resolved, including those pertaining to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.