The U.S. military is reportedly considering sending a task force equipped with tanks or other armored vehicles to establish an outpost overlooking oil and gas fields in eastern Syria. The primary aim of this deployment would be to prevent the Syrian regime or terrorist groups, such as ISIS, from seizing control of these resources. Where and to what degree the United States intends to maintain a military presence in Syria has been the subject of intense scrutiny and speculation following the start of a major Turkish operation into the northern part of the country two weeks ago, which then precipitated a major American withdrawal.
Newsweek, citing unnamed U.S. military officials, was first to report on this potential deployment, which is supposedly pending White House approval, on Oct. 23, 2019. Other outlets, also referencing anonymous sources, have offered corroborating reports. The Washinton Post's Dan Lamothe said that his source indicated the troops would be stationed somewhere in the vicinity of the Conoco Gas Plant, which is situated outside of the Syrian city of Deir Ez Zor. This area has been under the control of U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish forces from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since 2017.
The concern now is that Turkey's intervention, which has primarily targeted the SDF, has drawn the attention of those forces away from the area and raises risks that Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, together with his Russian and Iranian allies, or ISIS terrorists may make attempt to retake this strategic area. Within days of the official beginning of Turkey's operation, dubbed Peace Spring, reports had emerged that the United States was considering retaining some sort of residual force in the country to maintain control of these resources and otherwise ensure that ISIS does not make a comeback.
President Donald Trump has also called for the SDF to refocus its efforts near Deir Ez Zor following a U.S.-Turkish deal that saw the evacuation of those local forces from a buffer zone along Syria's border. "Perhaps it is time for the Kurds to start heading to the Oil Region!" Trump wrote in a Tweet on Oct. 24, 2019.
Whether or not the SDF, in full or in part, will answer this or any other call from the United States remains to be seen. General Mazlum Abdi, who acts as the head of this umbrella organization, has stated his desire to continue working with American forces, despite the U.S. government's acquiescence to Turkey's intervention. He has also said that trust in the United States is at its "lowest." Mazlum has previously announced separate deals with Russia and Assad, as well.
The exact composition of the proposed American force remains unclear. Newsweek's sources initially described the projected task force as "half of an Army armored brigade combat team battalion." CNN reported that the prospective force would include "fewer than two dozen tanks," on Oct. 24, 2019.
Lamothe from The Post states that his source had said the "initial force would likely be "about a company," i.e., a handful of tanks and a couple hundred soldiers," in a Tweet on Oct. 24. "But source doesn't rule out that it couldn't grow from there," he added.
Each of the three combined arms battalions in a standard Army armored brigade combat team has two companies equipped with M1 Abrams tanks and two more mechanized infantry companies with M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, plus a headquarters company and an attached forward support company. Each armor company typically has 14 Abrams in total, while the mechanized infantry companies have an equal number of Bradleys.
The entire battalion, not counting the support company, has around 635 personnel in total, making half of this force around 320 personnel. The Wall Street Journal
has reported that the total size of the contingent could be up to 500 troops. This task force could include a mixture of Abrams and Bradleys.
It is also worth noting that Newsweek's initial report does not specify what type of battalion within an armored brigade combat team could contribute the forces for this mission. Each one of these brigades in the Army has an organic battalion-sized cavalry squadron that also has Bradleys, along with up-armored Humvees.
CNN also reported that the Pentagon could choose a lighter force, suggesting that it might be equipped with Bradleys or 8x8 wheeled Stryker armored vehicles. However, armored brigade combat teams do not have Strykers. U.S. Army Rangers have deployed these vehicles to Syria in the past, however.
That same CNN report said that the personnel would come from U.S. forces already deployed in the region, most likely the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, an armored brigade combat team that is presently in Kuwait. The Army has an armored brigade deployed to that country at all times as part of Operation Spartan Shield, which provides forward-deployed forces to respond to any contingency in the Middle East. These rotating brigades have regularly sent personnel to Syria, as well as Iraq in recent years to support operations against ISIS. This included a detachment of combat engineers that assisted in the lead up to the liberation of the city of Raqqa from those terrorists in 2017.
It is also possible that the armored brigade combat team in question could contribute personnel from various companies, but would deploy them to Syria in lightly armored vehicles, such as M-ATVs and up-armored Humvees, as well as tactical trucks. These types of vehicles, along with militarized pickup trucks and SUVs, have been the primary modes of transport for both U.S. special operations and conventional forces in Syria for years. The Army is also no stranger to reconfiguring various types of units as light infantry, armed with standard small arms and heavier weapons, including Javelin and TOW anti-tank guided missiles and mortars, for static security and other more limited missions.
The reports that the U.S. military is considering deploying tanks to the environs near Deir Ez Zor at all would seem to suggest that there is a concern that a lighter force may be too vulnerable, especially in the absence of other forward-deployed forces, including helicopter gunships and artillery, in northeastern Syria. The United States has been vacating even large bases in that part of the country in the wake of the Turkish incursion, a withdrawal that has now been codified in an official U.S.-Turkey deal.
It is worth remembering that in 2018, a force aligned with the Assad regime, with shadowy Russian mercenaries in the lead, attempted to oust the SDF, along with its American advisors, from their positions near the Conoco Gas Plant. That contingent included tanks and heavy artillery. It took a massive counterattack – which included U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, F-15E Strike Eagle combat jets, MQ-9 Reaper drones, and AC-130 gunships, together with Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and U.S. Marine artillery – to beat them back. American personnel in that same general area might not be able to expect that that kind of support now, or in a timely manner, especially if there is bad weather that might prevent aircraft from responding at all for some period of time.
Even a few platoons of tanks, somewhere between three and nine Abrams, could certainly provide a significant force multiplier at an austere outpost near the Conoco Gas Plant. The M1s would provide a much greater volume of anti-tank fire with their 120mm main guns than troops armed with anti-tank guided missiles and could provide additional defensive firepower with their mounted machine guns.
Their electro-optical and infrared sensors would also be valuable for monitoring activity around any such forward operating location. Beyond that, the tanks could just present a psychological deterrent to any opposing force thinking about trying to move into the surrounding oil and gas fields.
At the same time, M1s or other heavy armored vehicles could present significant logistical complexities compared to a lighter force with less fuel-hungry and maintenance-intensive vehicles. It's not clear how much of the prospective force would be support personnel, or whether those elements would be in addition to the one or two companies of combat troops. Just ensuring that there is sufficient fuel for vehicles such as Abrams and Bradleys, which would be running their engines even when in static positions to run their sensors and other equipment, could be a substantial undertaking. You can read more about these types of challenges in this past War Zone piece.
CNN's report also indicated that the plan included provision for a secure supply line to the forward outpost, possibly from Iraq via the garrison at At Tanf, which sits just across the border from that country in Syria. Aircraft would patrol this route. However, if past experiences have shown anything, supply convoys would require their own protection when en route and there could be a need for more persistent ground patrols, as well.
On top of that, tanks or similar armored vehicles would not necessarily lend themselves to the kinds of hasty withdrawals we have seen in Syria, as of late. If American forces had to quickly pull out, even temporarily, from a position near the Conoco Gas Plant, they might be forced to leave these vehicles behind, requiring that they be destroyed in place or blown up from the air.
This a hardly an impossible scenario to imagine given that this austere operating location could easily be almost entirely surrounded by hostile actors in the near future as zones of influence in Syria continue to shift. Having to destroy tanks or other expensive armored vehicles, or a worst-case scenario in which they fall into enemy hands, could be immensely embarrassing if nothing else.
It remains to be seen how viable any such plan to retain a U.S. military presence near Deir Ez Zor is at all. A separate deal that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently concluded specifically calls for "the preservation of the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria." Russian officials have made clear that they understand this to mean the ultimate withdrawal of all American forces from the country and have decried the U.S. plans to continue to occupy areas in eastern Syria.
"I am sure that the implementation of this memorandum will strongly interfere with these plans," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Oct. 23, 2019. "We will work to nullify them."
Russia has previously threatened to attack the At Tanf garrison, as well, if that's what it might take to eject U.S. personnel from the country for good. Iranian-backed militias have also attempted to seize control of the area around that outpost in the past, only to face American airstrikes, as well. All told, the U.S. government's position with regards to Syria, both on the military and diplomatic fronts, is significantly weaker now than it was three weeks ago.
We will have to wait and see whether the U.S. military determines that a small armed task force is sufficient to block Assad and his allies, as well as ISIS, from retaking the highly strategic oil and gas fields in eastern Syria.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has now confirmed that a task force will reinforce existing U.S. personnel in Deir Ez Zor and will include "some mechanized forces." This could mean tanks or other heavy armored vehicles, but he did not elaborate on the exact force mix. "We are now taking some actions... to strengthen our position at Deir Ez Zor, to ensure that we can deny ISIS access to the oil fields," Esper told reporters on Oct. 25, 2019.
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