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US threatens ‘military force’ against ‘any group’ challenging occupation of Syria oil fields

A convoy of US military vehicles, arriving from northern Iraq, drives past an oil pump jack in the countryside of Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli on October 26, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

The Pentagon has threatened that American forces deployed around Syrian oil fields will use “military force” against any party that may seek to challenge Washington’s control of those sites, even if it is Syrian government forces or their Russian allies.

Speaking at a news briefing on Monday, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper referred to “multiple state and non-state” forces vying for control of Syrian territory and resources. 

The US military announced last week that it was reinforcing its position in Syria with additional assets, including mechanized forces, on a mission claimed to be aimed at preventing Syrian oil fields from falling to remnants of the Takfiri Daesh terror group in Syria, reversing President Donald Trump’s promise of a full military withdrawal from the Arab state.

Speaking about the mission, Esper said Washington “will retain control of oil fields in northeast Syria,” which provided the bulk of Daesh’s income at the height of its terror campaign. The Takfiri outfit has, however, collapsed after it lost all the territories it had captured in 2014 in Syria and Iraq.

“US troops will remain positioned in this strategic area to deny ISIS (Daesh) access [to] those vital resources. And we will respond with overwhelming military force against any group that threatens the safety of our forces there,” he added.

Asked whether the US mission included keeping oil fields out of Syrian or Russian control, Esper replied, “The short answer is, yes, it presently does.”

He added that the American deployment will allow the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to use the oil revenues to fund its militants, who Washington calls allies in the so-called fight against Daesh.

“We want to make sure that SDF does have access to resources in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat-ISIS mission,” he said.

The Pentagon chief further confirmed that American forces in Syria would remain in “close contact” with Kurdish-backed militants.

The claims come just weeks after Washington shocked the entire world by abruptly abandoning its longtime Kurdish allies in northeastern Syrian and announcing a troop pullout in the face of a Turkish offensive against the Kurds.

The Kurdish militants called Washington’s move “backstabbing” and quickly reached out to the Damascus government for support against the Turkish military.

Esper further said, “Turkey continues to bear responsibility for the consequences of their unwarranted incursion, which has brought further instability to the region.”

The defense secretary was speaking days after Washington claimed that it had killed Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a raid in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province.

While detailing the military operation that Washington says led to Baghdadi’s death, Trump said American troops would remain in Syria to “secure” oil reserves and even put up “a hell of a fight” against any force that tried to take them.

“We’re keeping the oil,” Trump said. “I’ve always said that — keep the oil. We want to keep the oil, $45 million a month. Keep the oil. We’ve secured the oil.”

“We should be able to take some also, and what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly,” he added.

Legal experts, however, say if US forces or firms take any oil without the consent of Syria’s legal government, that would amount to pillaging, a technical term meaning theft during wartime. Pillaging is illegal under both US and international law. It is explicitly prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov has blasted Washington’s oilfield operation as “state-sponsored banditry,” saying the US was stationing its troops in northeastern Syria to pave the way for smugglers to pillage Syrian resources.

The ministry published aerial images on Saturday which it said show crude oil being smuggled out of Syria “under the strong protection of the US.”

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