WASHINGTON (AP) — Pivoting from the dramatic killing of the Islamic State group’s leader, the Pentagon is increasing U.S. efforts to protect Syria’s oil fields from the extremist group as well as from Syria itself and the country’s Russian allies. It’s a new high-stakes mission even as American troops are withdrawn from other parts of the country.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper says the military’s oil field mission also will ensure income for Syrian Kurds who are counted on by Washington to continue guarding Islamic State prisoners and helping American forces combat remnants of the group — even as President Donald Trump continues to insist all U.S. troops will come home.
“We don’t want to be a policeman in this case,” Trump said Monday, referring to America’s role after Turkey’s incursion in Syria. In the face of Turkey’s early October warning that it would invade and create a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of its border, Trump ordered U.S. forces to step aside, effectively abandoning a Kurdish militia that had partnered with U.S. troops.
Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at a Pentagon news conference to cheer the successful mission by U.S. special operations forces Saturday that ended with IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi blowing himself up. Esper called al-Baghdadi’s death a “devastating blow” to an organization that already had lost its hold on a wide swath of territory in Syria and Iraq.
Milley said the U.S. had disposed of al-Baghdadi’s remains “appropriately” and in line with the laws of armed conflict. He also said U.S. forces retrieved unspecified intelligence information from the site, which he described as a place in northwestern Syria where the IS leader had been “staying on a consistent basis.”
A U.S. military dog that was slightly injured in the raid has recovered and is back at work, Milley said.
Esper hinted at uncertainty ahead in Syria , even though the Islamic State has lost its inspirational leader, with the Syrian government exploiting support from Russia and Iran.
“The security situation in Syria remains complex,” Esper said.