Oct. 22 (UPI) -- The United States is considering keeping troops in Syria to secure oil fields, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said amid a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the embattled country.
On his first visit as the Pentagon chief to Afghanistan, Esper told reporters Monday that there "have been discussions" about stationing troops at Syrian oil fields to prevent them from falling into Islamic State hands.
"We presently have troops in a couple of cities that are located right near that area," he said, referring to the location of oil fields in Syria. "The focus is to deny access, specifically revenue, to [IS] and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities."
There have been no decisions about how many troops would remain, he said.
The comment came amid a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria at the orders of President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly said he wants to bring U.S. troops home and end the United States' so-called endless wars.
Trump made the controversial decision following a conversation with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose military then conducted Operation Peace Spring to push back U.S.-ally Kurdish forces he views as terrorists from the Syria-Turkey border. The operation has been halted since last week due to a U.S.-brokered cease-fire.
Esper said there are currently troops "not in the present phase of withdrawal" in eastern Syrian towns next to oil fields. The withdrawal maneuver of some 1,000 troops in the country will take weeks not days, he said.
He said it is his job to prepare options to present to Trump for him to decide on the course of action.
Hours later, Trump seemed to signal approval for the idea telling reporters during a Cabinet meeting that he didn't think it was necessary to have troops in the country other than to secure the oil.
"We secured the oil," he said. "Other than that, there's no reason for it, in my opinion."
A day earlier, Esper told reporters that the 1,000 U.S. troops would be leaving Syria to reconstitute in Iraq, which already has about 5,000 American forces.