President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday that the US military would continue securing oil fields in Syria while also suggesting that America’s onetime allies in the fight against ISIS, the Syrian Kurds, consider moving to the region that houses those oil fields, a move that would see them relocate from their traditional homelands to a desert area hundreds of miles away.
Trump’s tweet came after two defense officials told CNN that the Pentagon is considering plans to deploy tanks to Syria for the first time. Other officials said it is possible that lighter-weight armored vehicles such as Bradley or Stryker fighting vehicles could be sent because tanks could require an extensive number of troops to operate.
“I really enjoyed my conversation with General @MazloumAbdi,” Trump wrote, referring to the Kurdish leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which today accused Turkey of violating a ceasefire that had been negotiated by the Trump administration.
“He appreciates what we have done, and I appreciate what the Kurds have done. Perhaps it is time for the Kurds to start heading to the Oil Region!” the President added.
It was not immediately clear whether Trump was suggesting that the entire Syrian Kurdish population, which numbers in the millions, effectively self-deport to an Arab majority area that is near the oil fields, an indigenous population that is unlikely to welcome a sudden influx of Kurds.
Trump and others have used the term “Kurds” to refer to multiple groups, including the Syrian Kurdish population, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces — a mix of Arabs, Kurds and others — and the Kurdish element of the Syrian Democratic Forces, known as the YPG, a group Turkey says was the target of its recent invasion.
None of these groups would likely agree willingly to self-deport from their traditional homelands.
While the Syrian Democratic Forces does have a presence in the area, relocating the entire Syrian Kurdish population there has never been previously suggested.
Critics of Turkey’s recent operation in Syria, including a large bipartisan group in Congress, have accused Turkey of trying to bring about a major demographic shift in northeast Syria, forcing Kurds to leave the area.
A defense official later confirmed to CNN that “the US is committed to reinforcing our position, in coordination with our SDF partners, in northeast Syria with additional military assets to prevent those oil fields from falling back into the hands of ISIS or other destabilizing actors.”
“We must deny ISIS this revenue stream to ensure there’s no resurgence,” the official added.
US is considering sending tanks and armored vehicles to Syria
And in a sign that the US military may be concerned about potential clashes with heavily armed adversaries such as Russia and the Syrian regime, the US is weighing deploying tanks or other armored vehicles to the country for the first time to help US troops defend the oil fields Trump is prioritizing.
US forces have been in the region of the oil fields but the calculation now centers on whether more forces are needed to deter the Syrian regime and potentially Russian forces.
Up until now US troops in Syria have ostensibly focused on fighting ISIS and advising local forces, missions that have not required tanks.
While ISIS managed to seize some tanks at the start of the Syrian civil war, ISIS does not pose the same type of threat to US personnel as the mechanized armies of the regime and its Russian backers.
The US may start moving the tanks and troops into eastern Syria, where the oil fields are, “relatively soon,” according to two US defense officials familiar with the plan.
Another senior US military official told CNN that the troops near the oil fields will not be solely focused on protecting the oil infrastructure but will also help combat remnants of ISIS and continue to work with and train local Syrian Democratic Forces.
It is not yet known if the plan has final approval or the exact number of tanks or vehicles that may be sent, but preparations are underway.
Officials are indicating that fewer than two dozen tanks may be sent to the area. But additional forces will be required, not just for operating the tanks, but also for providing fuel supplies as well as a secure supply line in and out of Syria that would have to be secured in part by aircraft patrols.
“While having an independent heavy armor capability in the desert would be a powerful force that could address any potential threat, these forces also require significant logistics support, which would be challenging in this part of Syria,” CNN military analyst retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said.
The potential deployment of tanks was first reported by Newsweek.
The two defense officials told CNN that because the tanks and vehicles are already in the Middle East region, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, would have the authority to move them wherever they are needed. Central Command declined to publicly comment.
Hertling said an Armored Brigade Combat Team is always part of the Central Command reserve force that is deployed in Kuwait, saying that “they are always prepared to rapidly deploy from that location to anywhere in the Middle East based on the needs” of the Central Command commander, the analysis by the Joint Staff and the approval of the secretary of defense.
Publicly, the Pentagon has said US troops remain in eastern Syria for the time being because the troop withdrawal plan currently is focused on getting troops out of northern Syria. But in an interview on Tuesday with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Defense Secretary Mark Esper hinted at the effort, saying, “We’re looking 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 — I need to take him options sometime here soon.”
The deployment of US tanks to the area underscores the risks being faced by American troops there given previous Russian and the regime’s efforts to seize the oil fields.
The tanks would bolster the protection of US troops in eastern Syria “against any incursion” into the area by other forces with tanks or armored units. The only forces in the region with armored forces are Russian or Syrian regime units. ISIS does not have functioning armored units.
While US troops in the area had previously used airstrikes to repel armored regime assaults, the potential for bad weather can make relying solely on such air support risky.