AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump has been saying two seemingly contradictory things this week. He says U.S. troops in Syria are coming home because ISIS has been completely defeated, and he's saying some troops may stay in Syria to watch over oilfields to make sure ISIS doesn't retake them. For a closer look, we have NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre in the studio.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: I want to think back to the president's speech on Wednesday where he said, quote, "now we're leaving." Troops are getting out. He also said some forces will stay to, essentially, watch over oilfields. Can you help us understand what's going on? Are these contradictory statements?
MYRE: Well, yes. You really can't seem to have this both ways. And he got a lot of criticism, mostly for the talk about a withdrawal - came from Republicans, the national security community, ex-generals. So this would seem - talking about the oil fields might be a reason to allow just a sort of toehold in Syria.
And remember; there's only about a thousand U.S. forces there. So if they have to stay and guard the oil fields, the numbers might not change all that much. But the mission would be very, very different. No decision has been made yet. We heard the defense secretary Mark Esper speaking at NATO today, talking about the possibility of repositioning forces and the possibility of sending mechanized forces, which is military speak for tanks.
CORNISH: Remind us how ISIS was able to exploit the oil fields a few years ago.
MYRE: Right. So Syria was a very modest oil producer before the war broke out there. It produced enough for itself and exported just a little. And then ISIS moved in around five years ago. And they took control of these oil fields in the eastern part of Syria. And they were able to get about 10% or so of what was being produced before the war. But they were able to make a lot of money on this. I spoke with Daniel Yergin at IHS Markit. And he's followed the global oil industry for decades. Here's how he describes the ISIS operation.
DANIEL YERGIN: They recruited people or made people work. They even had HR departments of their own kind. And so they kept the oil producing. They had these kind of what are called small teapot refineries to refine the oil into motor fuel. And then they smuggled oil into Turkey. And out of all of that, they were making a lot of money.
MYRE: So maybe a million dollars a day or even more, but they were eventually bombed out and driven out by the U.S. And they're really in no position to recapture territory, let alone restart oil production.
CORNISH: If you're saying it's unrealistic for ISIS to retake the oilfields, are there other possible reasons the U.S. military might stay?
MYRE: So we don't know. ISIS is the only stated reason, but there's a lot of speculation. It may be a way to just keep an eye on Russia in Syria and prevent President Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, from rebuilding his country or regaining control of these areas. But remember; this is Syrian oil, not something that the U.S. can claim as its own. And I also spoke with Joshua Landis, who's at the University of Oklahoma and keeps close tabs on Syria.
JOSHUA LANDIS: The main reason for America to retain that oil is to deny it to Assad. This is not about ISIS. This is about greater policy in Syria to hurt the Assad regime and to gain and retain leverage on the part of America.
MYRE: So he sees it as a possible bargaining chip somewhere down the line in negotiations on Syria.
CORNISH: I wanted to ask how does this not play into, like, a kind of long-running criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East - that it's all about controlling oil?
MYRE: Right. So we've heard that for decades, but it's a much different world today. The United States is the world's largest oil producer, even more than Saudi Arabia. It is not dependent as it was. So it's - a lot people are scratching their head about the policy, but hard to make the case that this is an oil grab.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Greg Myre.
Thanks so much.
MYRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.