MOSCOW — Russia’s Defense Ministry on Saturday harshly criticized the United States decision to send armored vehicles and combat troops into eastern Syria to protect oil fields, calling it “banditry.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said the move is aimed at keeping the fields from potentially falling into the hands of Islamic State militants. The decision was the latest sign that extracting the U.S. military from Syria is more uncertain and complicated than President Donald Trump has made it out to be.
On Saturday, there were several troop movements in Syria as the various players adjusted to the U.S. decision to withdraw troops from the northeast.
The future of the five-year fight against Islamic State militants is unclear, along with the entire strategy underpinning the U.S. troop presence in the U.S. Central Command region.
A U.S. convoy of over a dozen vehicles was spotted driving south of the northeastern city of Qamishli, likely heading to the oil-rich Deir el-Zour area where there are oil fields, or possibly to another base nearby. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor also reported the convoy, saying it arrived earlier from Iraq.
A large convoy of Syrian government troops was also spotted heading toward the M4 highway. The Syrian state news agency SANA said troops have entered the region of Ras al-Ayn, deploying to eight villages along the highway and up near the Syrian-Turkish border.
The Observatory called Saturday’s deployment of Syrian forces the largest in the area in nearly seven years.
Syrian government troops had not set foot in northeastern Syria since 2012, when the government pulled out to focus on the war elsewhere in Syria. The Kurdish forces took control of the area and allied with the U.S. to fight Islamic State militants who swarmed the area.
But after Trump ordered his forces to withdraw from Kurdish-held areas, allowing for a Turkish offensive launched on Oct. 9, Syrian Kurdish forces turned to Russia and Damascus for protection. The government deployment began in mid-October.
A separate deal between Turkey and Russia accelerated Syrian government deployment as joint Russian-Syrian patrols are part of the new border arrangements.
But Russia was critical that Washington will continue to keep troops in Syria.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said “what Washington is doing now, the seizure and control of oil fields in eastern Syria under its armed control, is, quite simply, international state banditry.”
“All hydrocarbon deposits and other minerals located on the territory of Syria do not belong to the IS terrorists, and even less to the ‘American defenders from IS terrorists,’ but exclusively to the Syrian Arab Republic,” he added.
“The real cause of this illegal action by the United States in Syria lies far from the ideals that Washington has proclaimed and from the slogans of fighting terrorism,” Konashenkov said.
After ordering his troops home, Trump said he will leave up to 300 troops in southern Syria before Esper announced that another residual force was being considered in southeastern Syria to protect oil fields.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by telephone Saturday about Syria.
“From the Russian side, the necessity was emphasized of refraining from steps undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of that county,” the ministry said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.