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US begins deploying troops to secure oil-rich region of Syria

Pentagon positioning forces following killing of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi


Mark Esper, left, and Mark Milley, right, say securing the oil-rich north-east region of Syria will help defeat Isis © Getty

by Aime Williams

The US has begun deploying forces to north-east Syria as the Pentagon reaffirmed its commitment to securing the oil-rich region following the death of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In a joint press conference on Monday, Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, asserted the US’s commitment to fighting Isis in Syria despite President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw forces. Mr Esper said the US has begun moving troops and “mechanised forces” — believed to be tanks — to the north-east region of Syria, where oilfields are currently held by Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

The SDF have been longstanding US partners in the fight against Isis. Mr Trump has been accused of betraying the group by failing to block a Turkish invasion aimed at pushing SDF forces back from the Turkish border.

Mr Esper said the US would make sure the SDF retained control of the oil. “We want to make sure the SDF has access to those resources in order to guard prisons, in order to arm their own troops and in order to assist us with the . . . mission — so that’s our mission, to secure the oilfields,” he said. When asked if securing the oilfields included denying access to Syrian and Russian government forces, Mr Esper replied: “Yes, it presently does.” Gen Milley said securing the oilfields would “prevent the resurgence of Isis”. Mr Esper confirmed that US forces remaining in Syria to carry out counter-terrorism operations would remain in “close contact” with Kurdish-backed forces.

Separately, a senior state department official said SDF forces had played a “key role” in the finding and killing of al-Baghdadi. “Nobody should underestimate how key the SDF was in all of this.”

US and SDF forces have also killed al-Baghdadi’s spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, who was “considered a number two”, the official said. The SDF had made a statement on Sunday announcing his death.

Two Isis fighters were also captured by US forces as part of the weekend raid that killed the militant group’s leader, Mr Esper said. On Sunday, Mr Trump said operations to move in on al-Baghdadi had been weeks in the planning and said the Isis leader was killed after trying to flee US forces in a tunnel. Isis, which captured a third of Iraq and a huge swath of Syria in a lightning sweep in 2014, set up what it called an Islamic state in an attempt to revive the caliphate of the early days of Islam.