DAVID GREENE, HOST:
American armored vehicles continue arriving in Syria to support forces protecting oil fields there. Defense Secretary Mark Esper first said these troops would be protecting the oil fields from ISIS. But later on, when pressed by reporters, Esper acknowledged the troops are to make sure Kurdish forces, known as the SDF, will have control of those oil fields to keep Russia and Syria out.
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MARK ESPER: The short answer is yes, it presently does. Because in that case, we want to make sure that SDF does have access to the resources in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with to defeat ISIS mission. So that's our mission, is to secure that oil fields.
GREENE: OK. Let's talk about what's going on here with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who's with us. Hey there, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: OK. Talk us through this. We know that U.S. troops pulled out of the area in Syria where they had been working with Kurdish militias in the fight against ISIS. So where are those troops as of now?
BOWMAN: Well, President Trump agreed to leave some troops to protect the oil fields farther to the south from the Turkish-Syrian border, around a town called Deir ez-Zor. Now, the oil is now under U.S. and Kurdish control. And as Secretary Esper said, the revenue from the oil is being used by the Kurds to finance their operations, like fighting ISIS, maintaining the prisons, holding ISIS fighters. And the U.S. is now flying-in armor from Kuwait, Bradley fighting vehicles, to protect these oil fields. Some of the armor already has arrived, and it's possible, David, you could send in tanks, as well.
GREENE: So what about this distinction that reporters were able to sort of press Secretary Esper on? I mean, initially, said this was about keeping oil away from ISIS. Then he acknowledged that the concerns are actually about Russia and Syria. Like, does ISIS even have the strength to grab that oil?
BOWMAN: Well, you know, a couple of years ago, they did control these oil fields and made millions of dollars that were used to keep its caliphate going. But ISIS no longer has the power, the capability, to really control any large swath of ground. They, of course, lost their physical caliphate in both Iraq and Syria. It's become, David, a guerrilla movement that mounts assassinations and bombings. There's still a threat now with thousands of fighters in both countries. But they just don't have tanks, or armor or aircraft that could in any way grab those oil fields.
And again, as Secretary Esper acknowledged, this is all about keeping Russian and Syrian forces from taking over those oil fields. And again, you know, he acknowledged that that's part of what they're trying to do there. Now, when I was in Syria visiting U.S. troops last year, it was Russian mercenaries that actually moved on these oil fields, and they were repulsed by U.S. airstrikes.
GREENE: So let me just clear this up. You say the troops have left, you know, on President Trump's orders from where they were working with Kurdish forces they're protecting this oil. But what about ISIS? I mean, is that fight still going on, and is the United States still working with Kurdish militias in some way?
BOWMAN: You know, they are. And of course, President Trump said he wanted all U.S. troops out. He agreed to leave some to protect the oil fields. But there are still special operators there working with the Kurds going after ISIS. That fight continues. Again, it's a guerrilla movement. So they're kind of going after them in small units in the cities and towns. And here's the thing, David. You roughly will have the same number of U.S. troops now that you did when President Trump said all of them should be out.
GREENE: Interesting. All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman speaking to us. Tom, thanks.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.