American troops stationed in eastern Syria have the difficult and dangerous job of guarding the very oil-rich Kurdish-held land. And everyone — the Syrian government, the Russians, the Turks, and ISIS — wants to control it.
The area is developing into a very dangerous place for the American troops: They’ve come under attack from a variety of actors while still having the threat of ISIS to deal with just to their south.
After ISIS took over a large swath of land in Iraq and Syria, the United States partnered with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a coalition to defeat ISIS. Doing the lion’s share of the fighting, the Kurdish groups took control of most of northeast Syria in the ensuing campaign.
Much of Syria’s oil reserves lie in the eastern Deir al-Zor province and in Hasakah, a northeastern province bordering Turkey and controlled by the SDF. That doesn’t sit well with any of the major actors facing off in the 11-year-old civil war.
The Turks have equated the SDF and the YPG (People’s Protection Units) with the outlawed insurgent group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that is operating in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanded that U.S. President Donald Trump pull American troops out of Syria last October. Trump acquiesced and then Turkey, with a green light from Trump, launched Operation Peace Spring on Oct. 9 to clear the Kurds from the areas near the Turkish borders.
This offensive broke the SDF’s hold on the region. The resultant power vacuum has left the Kurds, Syrian government troops loyal to President Assad, their Russian backers, ISIS, and Turkish-backed rebel militias vying for control of the northern Syrian territory.
President Trump later reversed his decision, after consulting with his administration, and left hundreds of troops, embedded with the Kurds, in their remaining strongholds. Trump stated that they would stay to “defend the oil.”
But attacks in the area are becoming more frequent. “In the last 48 hours we’ve had two attacks on critical petroleum infrastructure,” said Captain Alex Quataert. He added that “our primary mission is to secure the oil infrastructure for use of our partner force.”
These American soldiers have come under fire from Turkish artillery and were sorely tempted to fire back. In another incident, Russian troops, dogging the Americans who were withdrawing from a base under orders from President Trump, were able to take over the abandoned outpost and then mugged for the cameras. And a few months earlier, Russian “contractors” with Syrian troops had tried to take one of the bases and were bloodied badly by American air support.
While the Americans have withdrawn from some of their bases, in the north, they continue working and fighting alongside SDF fighters.
“They [SDF] are the partner force that primarily defeated the physical caliphate — the actual ISIS-controlled area,” said Captain Quataert to NPR, and he added that ISIS is down but not out.
“They still have a lot of fight left to give,” he said. “ISIS has become a guerilla force. They are still active, especially further to the south.”
The Syrian offensive to capture the remaining rebel-held land has been reliant on Russian air support, which had wreaked havoc on the rebels and civilians alike. With the Russian and American troops now coming in much closer proximity than before, the Russians are getting bolder, harassing the Americans on the highways that the two superpowers must share. However, the Russians are finding out that that can be a double-edged sword. During joint patrols with the Turks after their ceasefire, the Russians have been harassed by locals who don’t want them there.
The Americans have also been getting buzzed from drones that are spotting for mortar attacks on the U.S. and Kurdish forces. The Kurds believe the Turks are behind those drones. The Turkish military, which has formidable drone capabilities, hammered Syrian troops earlier this month.
The situation on the ground may end up being even more of a powderkeg: Reports are filtering that a Syrian target hit by Israel earlier this month was a chemical weapons production facility.
Although the international community has tried to stifle Damascus’s ability to produce chemical weapons, if the Syrians are indeed restarting production, it will be a bad sign. The Assad regime has already shown that it has no compulsion on using chemicals on its own people. Assad has already slaughtered large segments of the Sunni population with chemical weapons during the civil war.
With the Kurds holding the rich oil fields, Assad could once again opt to use fresh chemical weapons to further his aims at retaking the entire country and the oil fields back. With American troops in close proximity, this is a scenario no one would benefit from.