The race is on in Syria

Yesterday, U.S. backed forces seized control of Syria’s biggest oil field. They beat the Syrian government and its foreign allies to the al-Omar field in Deir al-Zour province, a former ISIS stronghold.

The U.S. backed forces are Kurds and Arabs fighting under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They captured the oil field by charging 60 miles through the desert and launching a surprise attack against ISIS. The attack also surprised the pro-Assad forces who were close by — only a few kilometers away, according to one account — and expecting to capture the oil field, which contains about one-fourth of Syria’s oil reserves. The field was taken with little damage to the oil facilities, according to the SDF.

A spokesman for the U.S. military denied that our military and its allies are in a race with the Syrian government to capture territory from ISIS as that terrorist outfit collapses in Syria. The denial seems dubious, at least when it comes to the SDF. It is belied, I think, by reports that the SDF will next proceed to Bukamal. This town straddles the highway between Baghdad and Damascus, and is viewed as a key to Iran’s hopes of creating a land route between Tehran and Beirut.

The SDF’s capture of the al-Omar oil field and its plan to take Bukamal carry the real possibility of a clash between this group and forces of Syria/Iran/Russia. This prospect raises rather acutely the questions of how deeply, if at all, U.S. forces are embedded with the SDF and how far the U.S. is prepared to go in defending SDF forces in the event they clash with Assad’s forces and its foreign backers.

The spokesman for the U.S. military said that we provide intelligence and combat advice to the SDF. However, he declined to say whether U.S. forces deployed in Syria participated in the latest operation.

He did say that “we put forces where they need to be to support our partners.” This suggests that, our forces might become directly involved in combat with those of Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran.

However, the spokesman also said that “our mission is to defeat ISIS.” This suggests that we would abstain from any direct involvement in combat with other parties.

It is unlikely, I think, that without direct U.S. involvement, the SDF will be able to maintain control of the al-Omar oil field or any other territory in that region in the face of attacks by the forces of Assad and his foreign allies.