US Troops Staying Behind in Syria May Not End Up Guarding Oil Wells After All

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U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper meets with his Iraqi counterpart at the Ministry of Defense, Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Esper has arrived in Baghdad on a visit aimed at working out details about the future of American troops that are withdrawing from Syria to neighboring Iraq. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper meets with his Iraqi counterpart at the Ministry of Defense, Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Esper has arrived in Baghdad on a visit aimed at working out details about the future of American troops that are withdrawing from Syria to neighboring Iraq. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria was thrown into confusion Tuesday amid regional turmoil, an expiring cease-fire and mixed signals from Washington.

The first sign of problems with the rapidly changing withdrawal plan came when Iraq pulled up the welcome mat for U.S. troops who crossed Syria into western Iraq's Dohuk province in the Kurdish region.

In a statement, Iraq's Defense Ministry said that the U.S. troops would not be allowed to stay in the country, where about 5,000 U.S. troops already operate in advisory missions.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters traveling with him in Saudi Arabia that he would speak with Iraqi officials Wednesday to get clarification, but said the troops withdrawn from Syria would be going home rather than continuing anti-ISIS operations from Iraq.

Related: US Troops to Come Home in Another Change of Plan on Syria Withdrawal: Esper

"The aim isn't to stay in Iraq interminably. The aim is to pull our soldiers out and eventually get them back home," he said while standing in front of a Patriot anti-air battery at the Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh, where about 1,800 U.S. troops have deployed to aid the kingdom's defense against Iran.

"The end state is to bring the troops home, which is what President Trump wants to do," Esper said.

In an interview later at the air base with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Esper said the plan to keep a few hundred U.S. troops in Syria is still a work in progress.

On Monday, Trump said at the White House that some U.S. troops would remain in southern Syria to guard oil wells while others would be sent to bolster the U.S. garrison at Al Tanf on the Jordanian border.

"Right now, the president has authorized that some would stay in the southern part of Syria," Esper said. "And we're looking [at] maybe keeping some additional forces to ensure that we deny ISIS and others access to these key oil fields.

"But that needs to be worked out in time. The president hasn't approved that yet," he said. "I need to take him options sometime here soon."

The confusion on the status of the troops and the pace of the withdrawal spilled over into a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday.

"We don't have clarity on whether [and] where U.S. troops might remain," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, the ranking committee member, told Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S Special Representative for Syria Engagement.

"I personally was not consulted" on the Syria withdrawal, Jeffrey said. But he was cut off before he could complete his answer, and it was unclear whether he was referring to Trump's initial announcement of a withdrawal last December or the most recent one earlier this month.

Jeffrey, who served as an Army infantry officer in Vietnam, said that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces had "absolutely" been loyal allies to the U.S. and U.S. national security interests are "absolutely" at risk in the withdrawal.

He added that Turkey had acted "unwisely and dangerously" in launching an invasion of northeastern Syria to drive out the SDF, saying U.S. efforts are now focused on "digging out of this mess."

The prospects for cooperating with Turkey appeared to diminish with reports coming from the Russian resort town of Sochi on meetings between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The two sides later issued a memorandum of understanding calling for Russia to take up what had essentially been the U.S. role in northeastern Syria. Under previous agreements, U.S. and Turkish troops had been conducting joint air and ground patrols in northeastern Syria to ease Turkish concerns about the SDF presence.

The memo said that, beginning Wednesday, "Russian military police and Syrian border guards will enter the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border" in the first step at enforcing a 20-mile-deep safe zone in northeastern Syria that Erdogan wants to use for the return of Syrian refugees.

Erdogan described his talks with Putin as a "historic understanding" to rid northeastern Syria of the presence of the SDF, which Turkey regards as a terrorist organization.

Trump's withdrawal order, and his seeming abandonment of the Kurds, has brought condemnation, even from some of his closest Republican supporters.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, introduced a resolution calling on Trump to halt the U.S. military withdrawal and "rethink" his invitation to Erdogan to visit the White House next month.

"It recognizes the grave consequences of U.S. withdrawal, the rising influence of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, and the escape of more than 100 ISIS-affiliated fighters detained in the region," McConnell said of the resolution.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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