NOTE: The following article originally was published in the Jerusalem Post Opinion section on October 28, 2019.
The final 1,000 United States Special Operations Forces have withdrawn from military posts across northeast Syria to make way for Turkish-backed forces. As US personnel abandon these positions and cross the border into neighboring Anbar Province in northwest Iraq, their armored vehicles are pelted with rocks and tomatoes by disgruntled locals. “Fuck you, America!” is among the many slogans and other profanities hurled at retreating forces. This is a massive departure from earlier days when those same locals once greeted US forces with cheers. Those days appear to be long gone.
The great betrayal
“The USA has betrayed us. The USA has abandoned us!”
These words echo across northeast Syria and come from the mouths of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who lost loved ones fighting with US personnel against the Islamic State. More than 11,000 fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces – a multi-ethnic coalition of militias consisting of Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turkmen and other ethnic groups, making up the demographic makeup of the northeast – gave their lives in this fight along with US Special Forces, from the battlefields of Manbij to Baghuz over a five-year period. Now thousands flee Turkish-backed forces, who push southward under cover of artillery and air strikes.
The symphony of violence playing out in northeast Syria is the product of one impulsive decision at the highest level of power. One October phone call made on a whim between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the gates to a withdrawal of US personnel from Syria. The decision was ostensibly made on the grounds of ending US involvement in “endless wars.” This gives Erdogan full power to shape the demographics of the region through operation “Peace Spring” and the resettlement of over 1.2 million Arab refugees.
There is a new humanitarian crisis in the making as over a quarter-million people flee the active conflict areas near the northeast Syrian border. Areas once inhabited predominantly by Kurds, but also by smaller ancient groups such as Syriacs and Yazidis, are being left abandoned. No one wants to stay to face the fanatical Islamic fighters that Turkey is outsourcing for its offensive. Fighters of the Sultan Murad Division, Jaysh al-Islam – the list goes on. These forces each push deeper into the area, accompanied by former fighters of Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.
War crimes continue to be filmed in the area by Turkish-backed militias eager to present the footage to followers. In one graphic video, a Kurdish politician’s corpse is filmed under the boot of a Turkish-backed militant. The dead face lying stiff on the ground is that of Hevrin Khalaf – former secretary-general of the Future Syria Party. Hevrin’s black SUV was shot while traveling along the M4 highway that runs between Manbij and Qamishli. According to an autopsy report by Kurdish Red Crescent, she was dragged wounded from the vehicle by the hair and shot. This was a great loss to many within the civil administration of north and east Syria.
Hevrin’s assassination is not the only evidence of violence toward individuals in northeast Syria in the wake of Turkey’s offensive. There are dozens of videos circulating on social media sites that show the worrying disregard for international law by extremist fighters. Other videos show the graphic nature of some of the injuries sustained by civilians in this offensive. Children hit by some form of chemical substance scream as doctors rush to treat their melted skin and other lacerations. Claims of the usage of white phosphorous are currently being investigated. Meanwhile, doctors of the Kurdish Red Crescent and other medical organizations are attempting to treat as many people as possible.
A shift in power
There is a cruel irony in Trump’s decision to withdraw US personnel from northeast Syria. To prevent the continuation of endless wars in the Middle East, Trump might have inadvertently agitated the dynamics of the region and opened the gates for future wars. From a US national security standpoint, the US partnership with the SDF was the only thing keeping ISIS at bay and preventing a pro-Iranian, Russian-backed Syrian government from taking over. The partnership also afforded the region a brief period of stability and allowed for the people of northeast Syria to live in relative peace.
However, with the withdrawal of the United States and the escape of more than 100 Islamic State prisoners due to Turkey’s offensive, the region’s fate is unclear. The Russians now have stepped in to fill the power vacuum as Special Operations Forces accompanying Syrian Arab Army personnel take up positions formerly occupied by the US. The handover of power is captured perfectly in a video of a convoy of US personnel passing Russian-backed Syrian government forces on the way to Kobani, signaling an end to significant US influence in Syria.
Fearing the mass slaughter of his people in the northeast by Turkish-backed forces, Gen. Mazloum Kobani of the SDF came to an agreement with Russia to hand over cities in northeast Syria to the Syrian government. This was a daring move given the tense history between these forces, however, protection was evidently the priority. Syrian government forces have moved quickly into cities like Kobani and Manbij, raising the flag of Syria high along with portraits of President Bashar Assad. For some of these areas, it has been a long time since Assad’s presence was seen. Now he is back.
Russia has replaced the United States as the major influencer and international interlocutor in northeast Syria. The agreement in Sochi highlights this as Russia and Turkey agree to carve up the northeast into areas of influence. Details provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense show that Russia will allow Turkey to keep the Tal Abyad-Ras al-Ain pocket. Along with this pocket there will be Turkish-Russian military patrols and Russian military observation posts set up along the border. This leaves open the question as to the fate of the SDF and those already displaced.
An uncertain future
I wrote nearly a year ago that the consequences of a hasty US withdrawal from Syria would be enormous. It seems that what is going on in Syria’s northeast just reinforces that conclusion. The symphony of violence and disorder playing out in the region comes as a direct result of the US abandoning its friend. Thousands of people are homeless, ISIS prisoners are on the loose, and autocratic forces command the direction of Syria’s conflict. This may not be a problem for the coldest of realists, but the impact of this withdrawal will be felt in the coming years.
The resurgence of ISIS is no longer a matter of if: It is now a matter of when. The organization has been given life from this offensive and it will only be a matter of time before attacks start once again. As for the return of the Syrian government in the northeast, people will once again be targeted and taken away by the secret police. Future demographic alterations will result in the decreasing of the size of ethnic groups in the region and the complete erasure of smaller ethnic groups, such as Syriacs and Yazidis, who only have 80,000 members left in Syria.
“Why are you sad? Do not be sad, heval [friend]. We are still here and will be, regardless of what the future holds.”
These are the words of a message sent to me on WhatsApp from a Kurdish journalist based in Kobani. Despite the violence that erupted across the northeast in the last two-plus weeks, the optimism of friends does leave me with hope. The optimism reflected in the many smiles of local journalist friends across the northeast is truly amazing. Whatever the future holds for the people of this region, I know that the spirit of resistance to oppression will continue long after the final deal is done in Syria.
The hope of friends is an amazing thing for the human spirit.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson and published in the Jerusalem Post Opinion section (10/28/2019)