Even as American forces make a hasty and chaotic withdrawal from northeastern Syria, the US is considering leaving some troops behind to secure oil fields in the region and make sure they don't fall into the hands of a resurgent Islamic State, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday.
The Pentagon chief said the plan for was still in the discussion phase and had not yet been presented to President Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly said the Islamic State has been defeated and has portrayed the withdrawal of American support for Kurdish forces as part of his larger goal of bringing troops home from the Middle East.
Esper emphasised that the proposal to leave a small number of troops in eastern Syria was intended to give the president "maneuver room" and wasn't final.
"There has been a discussion about possibly doing it," Esper told a press conference in Afghanistan before heading to Saudi Arabia. "There has been no decision with regard to numbers or anything like that."
Still, the fact that such a plan was under consideration was another sign the administration was still trying to sort out its overall strategy amid fierce criticism from the president's Republican allies of his abrupt decision to pull US forces back — essentially clearing the way for Turkey's military incursion into the border region to push back the American-allied Kurdish forces.
A White House official said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham raised the issue of keeping U.S. forces in eastern Syria to protect the oil fields and that Trump supported the idea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.
Esper said the main goal would be to make sure the Islamic State doesn't gain control of the oil fields and the revenue they generate.
The defense secretary said American troops around Kobani are withdrawing and that the US is maintaining combat air patrol over US forces in Syria as the withdrawal goes on.
He said the US is using overhead surveillance to try to monitor the recently negotiated cease-fire "as best we can."
While Trump has insisted he's bringing home Americans from "endless wars" in the Mideast, Esper said all US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the American military will continue operations against the Islamic State group.