The withdrawal of United States Special Operations Forces from northeast Syria raises questions over the future of the Coalition’s fight against Islamic State and stability in the region.
The Russian-led axis and Erdogan’s Turkey both expressed in the past interest in taking parts of the region for themselves, with Erdogan recently expressing a desire to invade the north to wipe out “Kurdish terrorists.” With these threats, coupled with the Syrian government’s insistence on taking the region entirely, the people of the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” – the de facto multi-ethnic autonomous government running the area – now fear mass displacement and violence.
Northeast Syria is one of the few areas in Syria that provides stability, security and peace in a country devastated by nearly a decade of civil war. The population in this area numbers more than two million, with an additional million internally displaced people. There are around 2,000 United States Special Operations Forces operating in the northeast, assisting local partner forces, notably the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in protecting this large population. French and British special forces also assist the Americans in this defense and provide support to local partner forces in the fight against ISIS.
A hasty US withdrawal from this region before the fight against ISIS is completely over puts the longevity of Coalition victories against the group at risk. The more than 20,000 ISIS fighters estimated to be still active in Syria and Iraq pose a threat to the region.
These fighters are active in areas like Hajin, where SDF and Coalition forces are seeking to uproot ISIS’s last territorial area of control and destroy the group’s proto-state. The SDF’s capability to combat ISIS relies in part to air power and artillery. Without this support, the fight against ISIS becomes difficult – allowing a potential for the group to resurge and recapture territory.
A Turkish incursion into the northeast of Syria without any form of deterrence or protection for the civilians within the area would put lives and stability at risk. Should Erdogan deliver on his threats to invade the northeast of Syria through an attack on Tal Abyad and Manbij, there are concerns from locals that Turkish-backed forces will loot and destroy property as well as kill civilians. These concerns arise from Turkey’s most recent military operation into the predominantly Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Syria’s northwest, where more than 300,000 civilians are displaced, and mass looting occurred. Locals fear a similar result will happen to Afrin within areas in the northeast.
The departure of the US from northeast Syria undermines all that the Coalition sought to facilitate for the future of Syria and sets a dangerous precedent for future US incursions in the Middle East. A withdrawal from the northeast of Syria lessens US influence in negotiations over Syria’s future, specifically the peace process. Before the announcement to withdraw, US envoy for Syria James Jeffrey made clear the intent of the US to play a role in pushing for a UN-backed peace process under UN Resolution 2254. Without a ground presence in the region, negotiations become difficult.
Additionally, an abandonment of local partner forces like the Syrian Democratic Forces sets a dangerous precedent that fuels animosity towards the US and increases anti-American narratives perpetuated by US enemies. These narratives make it difficult to foster trust in areas where the United States seeks to exercise influence, such as Syria and Iraq. Uncertainty is created, as locals wary of US reliability will seek to make alliances elsewhere. This harms long-term US foreign policy objectives, such as the containment of Iran in the region.
The brokering of a deal between Damascus and the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria by Russia for the handover of territory in the northeast undermines Washington’s policy of preventing the expansion of the Syrian government’s control over the country. The potential hand over of rich resources from areas in Deir Ezzor such as the Al-Omar oil fields would allow Damascus necessary resources to build up its military centers, destroyed infrastructure and allow for Iranian paramilitaries to pose a greater threat to Israel next door. Iranian paramilitaries make up the bulk of the land forces fighting for the Syrian government. Iran’s objective in Syria is to create a land corridor to expand influence in the region.
There are many issues that arise from a hasty US withdrawal from the northeast of Syria that need to be addressed. Without addressing these issues, there will be negative consequences that arise within the region and outside of it.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (1/01/2019)
Original version on Jerusalem Post is linked here: https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/The-cost-of-a-US-withdrawal-from-Syria-575987
In late November, United States congressman Thomas Alexander Garrett met with officials of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria to tour the region. Earlier in the month, the U.S. Representative from Virginia visited the Nineveh Plains and met with officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government to discuss the situation of local minorities and the plight of the Yazidis under ISIS. The visit was facilitated by the Freedom Research Foundation, who accompanied the congressman in both Iraq and Syria. During Garrett’s visit to Northeast Syria, he was escorted around the region by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a multiethnic coalition of militias operating with US support to defeat Daesh.
Travelling from the east of the Euphrates River to the west and stopping in places such as such as Manbij, the Congressman heard stories of war from locals. The Manbij Military Council, which secures Manbij alongside U.S. special forces, showed Garrett the area that has become a point of contention for Turkey.
Turkey views Manbij— and by extension, the rest of the northeast— as a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) safe haven. The United States is attempting to work with Turkey in Manbij through a roadmap, which aims at joint control of the city between the U.S. and Turkey. However, so far, the roadmap has only taken form through joint patrols between U.S. and Turkish special forces along the demarcation line outside the city. Garrett was taken to observe this demarcation line from a safe distance by MMC officials. Thomas Garrett is not the first US official to have seen the DFNS or Manbij specifically. Midway through this year, Senator Lindsey Graham visited the region also.
The congressman was taken to many areas within the DFNS, and met with representatives of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) as well as members of the rest of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM). In these meetings, the congressman discussed political representation, minority issues, the fight against ISIS, and the human rights violations in Afrin. Afrin has been occupied by Turkish-backed forces since March, and has been the site of gross human rights violations, which include ethnic cleansing against Kurdish inhabitants and widespread looting. Garrett returned to the US after a few days in the region.
In December, Garret delivered a presentation to Congress on his visit to Syria and Iraq, which can be found in full on C-SPAN. He began by talking about genocide and the refugee crisis that has occurred because of Syria’s civil war. Highlighting the ineffectiveness of U.S. Syria policy by pointing to the funding of the Free Syrian Army, specifically Islamist members of that entity, Garrett points out the crimes that the US-backed FSA committed against Syrian minorities. The congressmen went on to discuss the ongoing occupation of Afrin and Turkish policy in Syria:
“Turkey has taken the occasion of calamity in Syria in order to enhance and expand Turkey itself….You see pictures of the entrance to the hospital, along with areas that the Turkish have taken control of. Under the auspices of a carefully named marketing ploy…to root out ISIS. Why do Turkish flags fly above the buildings there instead of Free Syrian Army flags? Why is it that the sign in front of the hospital is no longer in Kurdish…but now in Turkish and Arabic? Why are they changing the names of the streets there to Turkish names? Why is the police force of Afrin equipped with Turkish equipment, swearing allegiance to Erdogan, speaking Turkish, and imposing a Turkish will upon a people who are not ethnically Turkish?”
The congressman went on to discuss the atrocities committed by Turkey and Turkish-backed forces in places like Afrin. Garrett went on to note the word games that the Turkish government uses when referring to the SDF and mentions the need for a proper US approach toTurkey. He said the following about Turkey’s characterisation of the DFNS and its people: “The Turks tell us that North and Eastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Council is a subentity of the Kurds [referring to the PKK]. The Turks are lying.”
Garrett mentioned the ethnic diversity of the councils within the DFNS, noting their pluralism and democratic representation. Highlighting the important work of the SDC and the administration of DFNS, Garrett also pointed out the significant representation of women within leadership roles— a higher percentage than that of the U.S. Congress itself.
Towards the end of Garrett’s presentation, he mentioned a few active policies that the US could adopt for northeast Syria. These included political recognition of the DFNS in the Syrian peace process and as an entity within a sovereign Syria, protection of the DFNS under a US no-fly-zone, and to “make concrete commitments to these people that share our values.”
On Iraq, Garrett emphasised the need for greater financial support for minorities and increased representation of locals within the framework of a greater Iraq.
To end off this brief report, I have included one outstanding quote from the congressman’s final remarks:
“I’m not advocating on behalf of an independent nation in north and eastern Syria, but on behalf of a Syrian nation that shares values on what the leaders in this land— which has undergone so much tragedy, so much death, so much rape—have suffered through to begin. Instead, we shape our policy on what might the Turks do…. I have got bad news. There’s not a thing we can do to make them like us. Meanwhile, we’ve got people who are inherently drawn to us by virtue of an idea, that every person has a right to go to sleep in his or her community without fear that they won’t wake up in the morning, who just need us to say, ‘you have a right to be there.'”
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (17/12/2018)
Link to original The region piece: https://theregion.org/article/13291-us-congressman-visits-northern-syria-calls-for-support