“We are out of Syria other than we kept the oil,” President Donald Trump declared at a White House news conference Friday. “I kept the oil. And we have troops guarding the oil. Other than that we are out of Syria.”
In truth, 500 troops are stationed in Syria, and are not there to protect oil but to fight ISIS. Now, more are on their way.
At nearly the exact same moment Trump was assuring the nation that “we are out of Syria,” the Pentagon quietly annouced that a small battalion of soldiers will be deployed to the civil war-torn nation as a counter-measure toward increasing Russian aggression, three officials told NBC News on Friday.
The mission is to dissuade Russian forces from advancing into territory patrolled by the US, coalition, and Syrian Defense Forces, NBC learned. It consists of armored vehicles and fewer than 100 personnel from 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas, who were stationed in Kuwait.
But Russia’s growing presence on Syria’s eastern border has led to escalating tensions with the United States.
NBC summed up the “extremely provocative” circumstances:
While U.S. military and Russian forces have come in contact at checkpoints and along highway M4 in Syria throughout 2020, on Aug. 17 U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces came under small arms fire after passing through a checkpoint near Tal al-Zahab, Syria. The U.S. and SDF had permission from the pro-Syrian regime forces manning the checkpoint, but then began to take fire from unidentified forces nearby. The U.S. and SDF returned fire and did not suffer any casualties. U.S. officials said the small arms fire likely came from Syrian and Russian forces.
The most serious incident this year occurred several days later, when seven U.S. soldiers were injured when Russia military vehicles sideswiped a U.S. military vehicle in northeast Syria. Three U.S. officials said the Russian vehicles intentionally collided with the Americans and then several Russian helicopters flew low and fast over the scene, which one official said was ‘extremely provocative.’ The Russian vehicles were outside of their agreed-upon operating area without notice, the officials said.
“These actions and reinforcements are a clear signal to Russia to adhere to mutual de-confliction processes and for Russia and other parties to avoid unprofessional, unsafe and provocative actions in northeast Syria,” an unnamed official told NBC.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is economically and militarily allied to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whom Trump reportedly wanted to assassinate in 2017. He was talked out of it by then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, according to Bob Woodward’s new book on the Trump presidency, Rage.
Trump’s bromance with Putin has led to some controversial policy shifts, such as his decision in 2018 to begin withdrawing troops from Syria because the US “is not a police force (except when it comes to peaceful protesters and domestic law enforcement affairs).
Viewed by many as a favor to Putin, it was one of many between irreconcilable rifts between Trump and Mattis, who resigned in December of that year and has become an outspoken critic of Trump. Trump never followed through on the drawdown, however, due to fierce bipartisan opposition.
Trump’s affinity for Putin notwithstanding, last month’s skirmish was “deliberately provocative and aggressive,” US Central Command spokesperson Captain Bill Urban said.
“These actions are a clear demonstration of U.S. resolve to defend coalition forces in the [Eastern Syria Security Area], and to ensure that they are able to continue their defeat-ISIS mission without interference,” Urban said in a statement. “The United States does not seek conflict with any other nation in Syria, but will defend coalition forces if necessary.”
General Frank McKenzie, the top brass at Central Command, said that Russia’s actions “got us into a dangerous situation where a Russian ground patrol actually came into the eastern Syria security area, an area they were not authorized to be in.”
That time, McKenzie recalled exclusively to NBC, we dodged a bullet:
We’re very lucky that our guys on the ground were able to keep that from turning into a larger incident. That was a concerning moment. And had it gone another way, we might have been in trouble there and they might have been in trouble, too.
Nevertheless, “patrols are always conducted with out SDF partners,” McKenzie said. “You’ll never see a U.S. element out there moving alone, it will always have SDF affiliated with it when they move… the op tempo is pretty high up there and they’re pretty active.”
US and coaltion force’s response to the assault reportedly killed 300 Russian mercenaries. American private military contractors, like Blackwater, founder Erik Prince is the younger brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, have long yearned to be a presence in Syria, hoping to exploit Trump’s insistence that the US military is “not a police force”
Ensuring that the US and its allies in Syria have the resources they require to keep the peace is the top priority.
“The mechanized infantry assets will help ensure the force protection of coalition forces in an increasingly complex operating environment in northeast Syria,” coalition spokesman Colonel Wayne Marotto said in a statement. “The coalition forces remain steadfast in our commitment of ensuring the enduring defeat of Daesh.”
McKenzie stressed similar sentiment to NBC.
“We constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the tactical position and we make adjustments to posture designed to give the troops on the ground what they need to be better protected as they carry out their mission,” the general said. “Therefore, our forces in Syria, we believe that we give them what they need to execute the missions that they’ve got and we pay keen attention to force protection as they do that.”
US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are still scheduled to draw down later this month and before the election, respectively.
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Brandon is a political writer for the Hill Reporter specializing in current events, breaking news, and scientific discovery. Brandon holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University. He lives in New York City.