President Donald Trump said Monday that a few hundred of the U.S. troops deployed to Syria would stay behind to guard oil wells and a post on the Jordanian border.
In a lengthy discourse at a Cabinet meeting on a range of issues, but said he was still committed to the eventual withdrawal of all U.S. troops to keep them out of the "endless wars" of the Middle East. He did not give a timeline for how much longer the small U.S. troop contingent would remain in Syria.
Trump's remarks on oil wells appear to be a reference to the oil fields coveted by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They are now in territory controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, around Deir el-Zour in southeastern Syria near the Iraqi border.
Trump suggested that the U.S. might make a profit off the oil wells and share some of the money with the Kurds, who face renewed attack from Turkey once a five-day ceasefire worked out by the U.S. expires Tuesday.
Trump said repeatedly that he wanted to "keep the oil" for the U.S.
But, he said, "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."
In addition to the troops guarding the oil wells, Trump said that he was also acting on the request of Israel and Jordan to keep a small U.S. contingent at the Al-Tanf garrison on the Jordanian border.
Videos from several news outlets showed outraged Kurds in northeastern Syria holding up signs in English saying "Trump Betrayal" as they threw vegetables and rocks at withdrawing columns of U.S. Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs.
Trump appeared dismissive of concerns expressed by several high-ranking retired military officers, former Pentagon officials and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, that the U.S. was abandoning loyal allies. The Kurds have carried the fight against ISIS in Syria.
"They were a good help" in driving ISIS from its territorial strongholds in Syria, Trump said of the SDF, "but we were a great help to them too. A lot of people are good when they fight with us."
The U.S. had never agreed to "stay in the Mideast for the rest of humanity, the rest of civilization, to protect the Kurds," Trump said.
"We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives," he said. "Let them fight themselves."
The SDF and Turkey have traded charges of violations of the five-day ceasefire, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to renew attacks unless the SDF pulls out completely from northeastern Syria. He has announced plans to create a safe zone for the forcible return of up to three million Syrian refugees now residing in Turkey.
Erdogan made the threats in a speech in Ankara before leaving for the Russian resort town of Sochi for discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the way forward after the ceasefire expires.
In remarks to reporters traveling with him over the weekend, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the estimated 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria were conducting a "deliberate withdrawal' by helicopter, airlift and convoy.
The withdrawn troops would be shifted to Iraq, Esper said, but he outlined a plan similar to what Trump confirmed on Monday. Esper said some troops would remain in the area of the oil wells and others would be sent to Al-Tanf.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.