KABUL, Afghanistan (Dispatches) — Even as American forces make a withdrawal from northeastern Syria, the U.S. is considering leaving some troops behind to control oil fields in the region, Pentagon chief Mark Esper said Monday.
He said the plan for was still in the discussion phase and had not yet been presented to President Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly portrayed the withdrawal of American support for Kurdish militants as part of his larger goal of bringing troops home from the Middle East.
Esper emphasized 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."
Esper said American troops around Kobani are withdrawing and that the U.S. is maintaining combat air patrol over U.S. forces in Syria as the withdrawal goes on.
While Trump has insisted he's bringing home Americans from "endless wars" in the Mideast, Esper said all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the American military will continue operations in the region.
The troops aren't coming home and the United States isn't leaving the Middle East, according to plans outlined by Esper before he arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday.
Esper did not rule out the idea that U.S. forces would conduct missions from Iraq into Syria. But he told reporters traveling with him that those details will be worked out over time.
Trump nonetheless tweeted: "USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!"
The Republican president declared this past week that Washington had no stake in defending the Kurdish militants.
"It's time for us to come home," Trump said, defending his removal of U.S. troops from that part of Syria and praising his decision to send more troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia.
Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, asked about the fact that the troops were not coming home as the president claimed they would, said, "Well, they will eventually." He told "Fox News Sunday" that "the quickest way to get them out of danger was to get them into Iraq."
Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists.
A senior administration official said Trump is now leaning towards a new Pentagon plan to keep a contingent of nearly 200 Special Operations forces at a few bases in eastern Syria, some near the Iraqi border.
Additionally, between 200 and 300 U.S. troops are expected to remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf on the Iraqi border.
The U.S. has more than 5,000 American forces in Iraq. Esper said he will talk with other allies at a NATO meeting in the coming week to discuss the way ahead for the mission.
The New York Times was the first to break the news about a new plan to keep a few hundred U.S. troops in eastern Syria in order to help his Kurdish allies retain control of oil fields and prevent Syrian government forces from reinstating control over territories occupied by foreign troops and their proxies.
The so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group of militias backed by the U.S., has switched sides to join Syrian government forces after Trump announced the American withdrawal.
The new plan appears to be an attempt by the U.S. to prise the Kurds away from the central government in Damascus and retain control over Syria's oil fields.
Trump seemed to hint at this outcome in a tweet on Sunday, saying, "We have secured the Oil.”
If endorsed, it would mark the second time in less than a year that Trump has reversed his own order to withdraw nearly all American troops from Syria.
Late last year, Washington stopped a Turkish invasion after Trump announced a plan to withdraw 2,000 American troops from Syria immediately. He later relented and agreed to a "gradual" pullout.
Earlier this month, Trump gave the green light to Turkey to launch a military invasion in northern Syria.
News agencies said Monday U.S. troops had crossed into Iraq from Syria through the Sahela border crossing in the northern province of Dohuk.
Video images showed armored vehicles carrying troops into Iraq, with Iraqi Kurdish sources saying that U.S. troops had crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
A video by the Kurdish news agency showed a convoy of armored vehicles driving through the northeastern city of Qamishli. People in the street hurled rotten potatoes, tomatoes and other rubbish at the vehicles, shouting, "No America,” and "America liar,” in English.
"Like rats, America is running away,” one man shouted in Arabic. Another shouted obscenities and talked of babies in Kurdish-held who have died in the Turkish offensive.
With U.S. troops in Iraq and Turkish forces in Syria, some observers are wondering whether Ankara and Washington are coordinating their moves for a new chess game in the region.
Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been one of the most vocal critics of Trump's decision to move American troops out of northeastern Syria, reversed his stance Sunday and said he now believed "historic solutions" were possible.
On Thursday, Turkey agreed in talks with US Vice President Mike Pence to a five-day pause in its incursion to allow time for the Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a "safe zone" Ankara aims to establish in Syria.
The planned "safe zone" would go 32 km (20 miles) into Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said it would run for some 440 km from west to east along the border.