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US troops will deny Syrian government access to oilfields in northeast: Pentagon chief

Mark Esper says Syrian oil will be a source of funding for the Kurdish-led SDF
American soldiers at al-Omar oilfield in Deir Al Zor, 23 March (Reuters/File photo)

US forces deployed to secure oilfields in eastern Syria will deny the Syrian government access to that oil, Pentagon Chief Mark Esper has said, as part of a plan to generate revenue for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Esper said American soldiers will deploy around the oilfields to prevent Islamic State (IS) group fighters from recapturing them.

The US deployment will also allow the oil to remain under the control of the SDF, a Kurdish-led militia that served as a key ally to Washington in the fight against IS in the war-torn country.

"We want to make sure that SDF does have access to the resources in order to guard the [IS] prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the 'defeat ISIS' mission," Esper said, using another acronym for the militant group.

The secretary of defence's comments come a day after US troops killed the leader and founder of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during a raid in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

While announcing Baghdadi's death early on Sunday, Donald Trump suggested that the US may keep the oil in eastern Syria for itself.

"Look, we don't want to keep soldiers between Syria and Turkey for the next 200 years. They have been fighting for hundreds of years. We're out," the US president said.

"But we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil. Now, we may have to fight for the oil. That's okay. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight."

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Trump has faced rebuke in Washington for pulling American troops from northern Syria, effectively allowing Turkey to start a military operation against the US-backed SDF.

Earlier this month, the US administration helped broker a ceasefire to suspend the offensive thanks to a deal that would see Kurdish fighters leave the areas along the Turkish border.

Esper said on Monday that the remaining US soldiers in Syria will work closely with SDF fighters.

"Turkey continues to bear responsibility for the consequences of their unwarranted incursion, which has brought further instability to the region," the Pentagon chief said. 

However, he echoed Trump by saying that the US should not be policing the conflict.

"Acting as a police force out to solve every dispute is not our mission," Esper said. "Our mission in Syria today remains the same as when we began operations in 2014: to enable the enduring defeat of ISIS."