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U.S. Troops Aim To Keep Oil Fields From Syrian And Russian Forces


NPR right now has a team of journalists who are embedded in Syria. We heard this week from Jane Arraf, who's been reporting on the humanitarian crisis in Idlib. She brought us the story of a single mom trying to go on with life in a war. That is in the northwest of Syria, where civilians have been fleeing airstrikes from the Assad regime and from Russian forces.

This morning, we're turning to the northeast of the country, where our colleague Tom Bowman has been travelling with American military forces. And he's with us this morning from just across the border in northern Iraq. Hi, Tom.


GREENE: So could you just describe where you've been and what exactly U.S. forces are doing there?

BOWMAN: Well, David, over the past five days, producer Marisa Penaloza and I have been traveling with American forces at three locations inside Syria. The first location included oil fields about 300 yards from the Turkish border in the northeast of Syria. We were so close you can see a Turkish flag at a military outpost.

Then we drove in a convoy several hours south of there to a couple of villages to talk with residents about how things are going. And then finally, we went farther south into central Syria to check on the ongoing ISIS fight with American and Kurdish forces.

GREENE: Well, so you mentioned these U.S. forces have been going to these oil fields. What exactly is that for? I mean, this is a fairly new job for these forces, right?

BOWMAN: Yeah, you know, it is. President Trump wanted all U.S. forces out last fall but agreed to keep a small number, about 600 or so, to secure these oil fields not only from ISIS but also from Syrian government and Russian forces. Now, they want their Kurdish forces, their allies, to use the proceeds from the oil to pay for their operations against ISIS, and also, David, as leverage for any future political deal with the Syrian government. Now, it's all gotten more complicated here after Turkey invaded last fall and, together with Russia, pushed out the American forces, reducing their presence by about half, to an area now roughly the size of Vermont.

GREENE: Well, you say getting more complicated. I mean, that includes for these American troops, right? I mean, you were the first to report that some of these forces guarding the oil fields came under attack from an armed drone.

BOWMAN: That's right. Soldiers from the West Virginia National Guard were attacked by armed drones on two nights last week. A handful of mortars were dropped and narrowly missed them. U.S. investigators say the bombs were sophisticated. And, get this, David, some components were made by 3D printers.


BOWMAN: Now, there's no sense from anyone here where the drones came from, but speculation is they were from Syrian government militias which are operating roughly a half-hour away from where the National Guardsmen were. But, obviously, there's a worry that this is a new and possibly growing threat to U.S. troops here.

GREENE: When - and you said that you've been speaking to villagers. I mean, this is a Kurdish part of the country where there's been so much uncertainty. What are people telling you about life right now?

BOWMAN: Well, we talked to a number of Kurdish villagers, and they're desperately afraid of the Turkish invasion. Turkey sees these Kurds as allied with Kurdish militants inside Turkey. They say Turkey was shelling their villages, Turkish militias were sacking their homes. And hundreds of families fled south to an area where the American forces are operating. Some of the families are living in an abandoned school that we saw, others found other places to stay. And some with money said they want to leave the country.

We talked to one young woman in her 20s who fled as the American forces departed and headed east. She was still afraid and only wanted her last name, Mohammed (ph), used. She wore an orange sweatshirt with the words Los Angeles on it. Let's listen.

MOHAMMED: In my opinion, a future with American here - I don't think it will be finished. They will stay here because I know American people love us.

BOWMAN: Not everyone agrees with her. Other villagers we talked with were quite angry with the Americans, saying they feel abandoned, wondering why the U.S. didn't go after Turkey and the Turkish militias and basically doing a better job of protecting them. And she basically allowed that a lot of her friends think the U.S. will just eventually leave and abandon them.

GREENE: That's NPR's Tom Bowman reporting from Iraq. He has been embedded with U.S. forces inside Syria. Tom, thank you so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.