SYRIA    -   Russia’s defense ministry on Saturday harshly criticized the US decision to send armored vehicles and combat troops into eastern Syria to protect oil fields, calling it “banditry”.

The US defense secretary, Mark Esper, has said the move is aimed at keeping the fields from potentially falling into the hands of Islamic State. The decision was the latest sign that extracting the US military from Syria is more uncertain and complicated than Donald Trump has made it out to be.

On Saturday, there were several troop movements in Syria as the various players adjusted to the US decision to withdraw troops from the north-east. A US convoy of more than a dozen vehicles was spotted driving south of the north-eastern city of Qamishli, likely heading to the oil-rich Deir el-Zour area where there are oil fields, or possibly to another base nearby.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor also reported the convoy, saying it arrived earlier from Iraq. The seizure and control of oil fields in eastern Syria … is, quite simply, international state banditry

A large convoy of Syrian government troops was also spotted heading toward the M4 highway. The Syrian state news agency Sana said troops had entered the region of Ras al-Ayn, deploying to eight villages along the highway and up near the Syrian-Turkish border.

The Observatory called Saturday’s deployment of Syrian forces the largest in the area in nearly seven years. Syrian government troops had not set foot in north-eastern Syria since 2012, when the government pulled out to focus on the war elsewhere in Syria. Kurdish forces took control of the area and allied with the US to fight Isis militants.

But after Trump ordered his forces to withdraw from Kurdish-held areas, allowing for a Turkish offensive launched on 9 October, Syrian Kurdish forces turned to Russia and Damascus for protection. The government deployment began in mid-October.

A separate deal between Turkey and Russia accelerated Syrian government deployment as joint Russian-Syrian patrols are part of the new border arrangements. But Russia was critical that Washington will continue to keep troops in Syria. The foreign ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said “what Washington is doing now, the seizure and control of oil fields in eastern Syria under its armed control, is, quite simply, international state banditry.

“All hydrocarbon deposits and other minerals located on the territory of Syria do not belong to the [Isis] terrorists, and even less to the ‘American defenders from Isis terrorists,’ but exclusively to the Syrian Arab Republic.

“The real cause of this illegal action by the United States in Syria lies far from the ideals that Washington has proclaimed and from the slogans of fighting terrorism,” Konashenkov said.