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.”