Why Is America Still In Syria?
Trump brought chaos to a region already on the brink, and the unintended consequences of his actions will reverberate for years to come.
(U.S. soldiers patrol near an oil production facility in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah Province; Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)
In September 2020, a Syrian rebel group called the Hamza Division showed up in an unexpected place: the disputed post-Soviet territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, 600 miles from Aleppo. The rebels had been offered $1,500 per month each to fight for Azerbaijan against Armenia in the two countries’ border war over that disputed territory, several different news outlets reported.
Sayf Bulad, commander of the Hamza Division, has an interesting past. He served as a commander in a CIA-backed rebel group, appeared in pro–Islamic State propaganda, trained with the U.S. military, and fought other U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria on behalf of the Turkish government. Now he was helping two former Soviet republics fight each other for money.
Bulad’s story is a symbol of the chaotic U.S. policy toward Syria and its unintended consequences.
U.S. policy toward Syria was torn between two often-clashing goals during the Obama administration: The CIA and State Department were focused on ending the Assad family’s decadeslong rule, while the U.S. military was trying to crush violent religious extremists such as the Islamic State.
President Donald Trump inherited this awkwardly stitched-together policy and added in an element of chaos. The president himself said he wanted to end “endless wars” and claimed he was ready to pull U.S. forces out of Syria at the first opportunity. But he hired a collection of hawkish advisers who thought of Syria as a battlefield on which to make Iran and Russia bleed.
“He hasn’t been able to bring American troops home, because his own bureaucracy resists him,” says Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “He never set up a bureaucratic process to actually implement what he wants to do.”
The result has been a disaster.
In 2018 and 2019, Trump ordered U.S. forces out of Syria, only to walk back the order both times. The Kurds have been left in a deadly limbo, unable to count on U.S. protection from Turkey but also blocked from looking to outside powers for help. Meanwhile, American troops have found themselves in increasingly dangerous confrontations with their Russian counterparts in the country.
U.S. policy has not only failed to stop the conflict; it has helped prolong it, leaving millions of Syrians at the mercy of White House palace intrigue. President-elect Joe Biden will have to find a way to extract the United States from Syria without reigniting the civil war—or getting sucked back in.
‘The Time Has Come’
The United States began backing Syrian rebels because many in the Obama administration believed that they could help quickly bring down an oppressive tyrant. Instead, the U.S. intervention fed into a bloody, yearslong international conflict.
U.S.-Syrian hostility dates back decades. Syria is a close ally of Russia and Iran and helped support the insurgents during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But direct U.S. involvement in Syrian internal politics began with the Arab Spring.
As in other Arab countries at the time, Syrian activists rose up in protest against corruption and political repression. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad cracked down with brute force. Part of the Syrian army deserted, and the uprising became a full-blown civil war.
U.S. officials “looked at Bashar al-Assad as a hapless dictator who was not going to survive any of this,” says Frederic Hof, who served as an envoy for Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations at the time. President Barack Obama declared in August 2011 that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” although he also made it clear that “the United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria.”
Nevertheless, in an effort to hasten Assad’s end, the Obama administration imposed economic sanctions banning nearly all trade with Syria. The Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush administrations had previously imposed some sanctions on the Syrian government for supporting terrorism, but the new sanctions put the entire country under a blockade.
Other countries lined up more forcefully behind the anti-Assad opposition. Saudi Arabia, seeking to hurt Assad’s ally Iran, sent arms to the rebels. So did Turkey and Qatar, who saw the uprisings of the Arab Spring as a way to increase their own influence.
In 2013, Obama gave the CIA a green light to join in directly arming Syria’s rebels. Many details of the “Timber Sycamore” program remain classified, but it reportedly cost billions of dollars over four years. Assad’s forces lost control of much of the country in this time.
Hof and Robert Ford, the last U.S. envoy in Syria, claim that the U.S. arms program was not a decisive factor. It was “overwhelmed by support provided by regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” Hof says. Other experts, including Stein, disagree. In particular, they say, U.S.-made anti-tank rockets played a key role in helping the rebels push back the Syrian military.
But the regime did not fall.
“Rather than Bashar capitulating,” Stein explains, “he said, ‘I’m going to the Russians and the Iranians'” for help. “It was the boomerang of the success of the CIA program.”
Ford had believed early in the conflict that Assad could not win a war of attrition—and that the opposition could convince Assad’s allies in Russia and Iran to stay out of the fight. This prediction turned out to be incorrect. Iran soon began sending military advisers, volunteers, and mercenaries to back Assad. By late 2015, Russian jets and combat troops were also in the country.
“We made a terrible, terrible analytical mistake,” says Ford.
Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime eventually retook most of Syria’s major cities through years of brutal siege warfare. As many as 200,000 civilians died in the process, in addition to the tens of thousands who perished in Assad’s prisons during this period, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Network for Human Rights and the British-funded Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The chaos also allowed religious fundamentalists to take a prominent role in the Syrian opposition. Syrian nationalist rebels vetted and backed by the United States fought alongside sectarian Islamist groups.
“We effectively created auxiliaries to these hardline groups that were taking territory,” Stein says. “Even though the hardliners were smaller in number, they were more effective.”
These “openly sectarian figures…just scared the hell out of Syrian minorities, who as a result stuck with Assad,” explains Hof, who resigned from the government in 2012 and now teaches at Bard College.
Religious fundamentalists became especially powerful in Eastern Syria, where U.S. military intelligence warned in August 2012 that Al Qaeda in Syria was going to “declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria,” according to a declassified report.
At the same time, Syria’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority was starting to take up arms. They were led by a left-wing guerrilla group called the People’s Defense Units (YPG).
The YPG began to clash with Al Qaeda, whose Syrian branch broke off to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in early 2014. The Kurdish militants sought autonomy for their region under a secular system of self-rule, while Al Qaeda and later the Islamic State wanted to establish a pan-Islamic theocracy—just as the U.S. military intelligence report had warned.
U.S. diplomats were flying blind when it came to the region, according to Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. American intelligence agencies had not even been able to provide him with “two pages” on the political dynamics of northeastern Syria. But pressure was building on Obama to act, especially as the Islamic State executed journalists on tape and began a genocide against the Yazidi minority in neighboring Iraq.
The administration did not really understand which factions it could work with in Syria, according to Alexander Bick, then the director of Syrian affairs at the White House National Security Council. But eventually, the American military saw that the YPG was drawing Islamic State fighters “like a magnet” to the besieged northern Syrian city of Kobanê in late 2014. The United States opened a line of communication with the Syrian Kurds through intermediaries in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the YPG began helping direct U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State.
At the same time, the U.S. military was trying to work with other Syrian rebel groups. It spent $500 million on a program to train and equip a new army of pro-America, anti-Assad fighters. The results were disastrous. The first batch of fighters was quickly defeated and robbed by Al Qaeda in July 2015. Other alumni of the program, including the Hamza Division, went on to fight as mercenaries throughout the region—turning up, eventually, in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“We would hear, ‘I have 5,000 men’…and it turned out there would be like 20,” said former Middle East envoy Brett McGurk during a October 2019 speech at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Or the forces that we wanted to work with were so riddled with extremists that our military repeatedly said, ‘There’s no way we can work with these people.'”
Finally, the U.S. helped the YPG form a coalition with Assyrian Christian and Arab fighters called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). With minimal U.S. involvement—mostly in the form of military advisers and air support—the coalition sliced the Islamic State into pieces.
SDF fighters found themselves at the gates of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, by October 2016.
Obama had launched two interventions in Syria. The first, a covert attempt to overthrow Assad, failed miserably. The second, the war against the Islamic State—which sought to fix problems partially created by the first—succeeded only when the administration set limited goals, employed modest means, and relied on a campaign led by locals.
‘Orderly Transfer of Power’
Trump may have criticized America’s interventions abroad during the 2016 election, but his administration picked up almost exactly where Obama had left off. McGurk stayed on as the White House’s point man for military operations in Syria and Iraq, and Trump signed off on his roadmap, with a few important adjustments.
The new administration launched airstrikes against pro-Assad forces in April 2017 and April 2018 in response to chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Trump saw himself as reestablishing a “red line” that Obama had muddled.
Trump also started backing the YPG, who were still the most effective fighters in the SDF, more directly. American weapons flowed to the Kurds, while about 400 U.S. Marines joined the front lines in Raqqa, the first-ever conventional U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. “Donald Trump wanted to end the war in Syria as fast as possible,” says Stein. “That’s why he signed off on arming the YPG directly.”
The international coalition declared victory at Raqqa in October 2017 and moved on to hunt down the remnants of the Islamic State in the oil-rich, Arab-majority rural province of Deir al-Zor, Syria. The campaign there, which dragged on for more than a year, was temporarily put on pause when Turkey invaded the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin in January 2018. American officials described the Kurds’ mini-war with Turkey as a “distraction,” but the conflict would later become a major headache for the United States.
Trump then began to talk about withdrawing from Syria—while at the same time escalating against Iran.
In April 2018, the president appointed longtime hawk John Bolton as his national security adviser and promoted CIA Director Mike Pompeo to secretary of state. Both saw Iran rather than the Islamic State as America’s greatest enemy in the Middle East. They began a “maximum pressure” campaign meant to roll back Iranian influence across the region, which included forcing Iranian troops out of Syria.
Pompeo put two hawkish officials in charge of Syria policy: James Jeffrey, a veteran cold warrior who had served as U.S. ambassador to both Turkey and Iraq, and Joel Rayburn, a retired Army officer who had helped advise the U.S. military “surge” in Iraq.
McGurk supported brokering a peace deal between the Syrian Kurds and the Russians, but he met opposition from the new faction of Iran hawks in the administration. Jeffrey even asked the Kurds not to make a deal with Assad, telling them to rely instead on U.S. protection, the Daily Beast later reported. The hawkish faction also saw the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces as a “terrorist group,” as Bolton put it.
The YPG was close to an insurgent group in Turkey called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ironically, U.S. diplomats had predicted confidently in November 2007 that the Syrian Kurds would “not rally around the extremist tendencies of the PKK,” according to a cable later published by WikiLeaks. But in fact, both the PKK’s “libertarian socialist” ideology and actual PKK veterans held enormous influence over the Syrian Kurdish rebellion.
By 2018, Turkey was extremely unhappy with the growing power of the SDF, which it saw as an extension of the PKK. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got Trump on the phone to complain about it in December 2018. Trump, eager to fulfill a campaign promise to bring American troops home, agreed to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, which would leave Turkey free to invade. Photo: The nearly deserted Syrian city of Kafranbel, south of Idlib, during a pro-regime offensive; Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
That decision set off a bomb within the administration. Many officials felt blindsided by the sudden announcement and anxious about “betraying” the SDF to Turkey. McGurk quit in frustration. So did Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Bolton, Pompeo, Jeffrey, and Rayburn stayed, however. The Iran hawks were now in full control.
The hawks began to work on an agreement called the “safe zone,” a project to let everyone have a cake and eat it, too. The deal would bring Turkish troops into northern Syria as part of an international peacekeeping force, which could push the Kurdish YPG away from the border. American forces would stay in the short term to help implement the plan.
“While we played this string out, or developed a better idea, which might take months, we had a good argument for maintaining U.S. forces,” Bolton later wrote in his memoir. He added that he had hoped an “orderly transfer of power” from U.S. forces to Turkish troops would prevent Assad, Iran, and Russia from retaking northeastern Syria.
Turkey and the United States finally agreed to a deal in August 2019, and the SDF coalition dismantled its fortifications along the border with Turkey.
Trump’s advisers were hoping they could keep U.S. forces in Syria to fight Assad without angering Turkey—all while appearing to bring American troops home. Bolton wrote in his memoir that he was “deliberately vague” to both Trump and the media when it came to the number of Americans that would be necessary to implement the safe zone.
In an interview he gave to DefenseOne shortly after resigning from the State Department following the 2020 election, Jeffrey admitted that he had been “playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there.” As part of that effort, U.S. military leaders and Bolton pushed to count U.S. forces at Al-Tanf, a remote desert base far from the SDF-controlled zone, separately from the rest of the U.S. deployment to Syria.
Trump wanted out of Syria, but instead of organizing an orderly withdrawal, his advisers tried to take the fight against Assad out of the public eye.
As part of an effort to resurrect the anti-Assad rebellion, Trump administration officials had pushed the SDF to work with Turkish-backed Islamists against Assad. The effort didn’t go well. In one tense September 2019 meeting, according to a report from The National Interest, Rayburn screamed and broke a writing utensil in frustration after Syrian Kurdish officials refused to join forces with the Islamic hardliners.
Erdoğan, meanwhile, was publicly agitating to expand the safe zone. He got his wish and more during an October 6, 2019, call with Trump, when the U.S. president gave him a green light to invade Syria outright. It remains unknown what exactly the two leaders said, but the White House announced immediately afterward that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria.”
American forces had dismantled the SDF’s anti-tank fortifications as part of the safe zone deal two months earlier, rendering the Syrian Kurds defenseless. Now the United States was ushering in Turkish tanks and Turkish-backed militants.
Over 100,000 Syrians fled the invasion. They had seen the same forces unleash chaos, mayhem, and ethnic violence on Afrin a year earlier.
“I’ve met numerous people who were displaced when Turkey invaded in October  and personally blame Trump,” writes Amy Austin Holmes, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson -International Center for Scholars, from Syria.
The Trump administration was willing to allow Turkey to invade northern Syria. But the administration did not want the Syrian Kurds to turn to Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime for help, which would undo years of efforts to roll back the influence of Assad and his allies. U.S. policy, in other words, was not only to refuse to protect the Kurds but also to deny them protection from others.
A U.S. diplomat tried to convince SDF leader Mazloum Abdi to hold off on asking Russia to step in. Turkish forces were only going to move 30 kilometers into Syria and the invasion would stop after that, he claimed.
The Kurdish general was not having it. “You will not protect us and you won’t let anyone else protect us. Your presence has turned everyone else in Syria against us,” Abdi responded, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable leaked to CNN. “Either you stop this bombing [by Turkey] on our people now, or move aside so we can let in the Russians.”
The SDF signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Assad regime soon after, allowing Assad’s troops to join the fight against the Turkish invasion. Russia and Turkey then agreed to a safe zone of their own—along the same lines as the U.S. proposal—and the Syrian Kurds watched as Russian troops moved into their region as protection against the Turkish Army.
The Trump administration had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of planning for an orderly U.S. withdrawal and encouraging the Syrian Kurds to negotiate a peace deal with other factions in the country, Trump’s advisers tried to use the SDF to continue their anti-Assad campaign. Their efforts ended not with a Kurdish-led rebellion against Assad but with the Kurds looking to Assad and his allies to shield them from their archrival Turkey.
‘Take the Oil’
Trump’s pullout of Americans from Syria following his deal with Erdoğan was short-lived. U.S. troops eventually moved back in, including to areas near the Turkish border now guarded by the Russians. Trump repeatedly claimed that their mission was to “take the oil” or guard the “oil region.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) and other hawks had used the promise of oil profits to sell Trump on their plans to keep U.S. forces in the region, according to Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which lobbies for the Syrian opposition in Washington.
“If you want to feed the baby medicine, you put the medicine in candy or something. That’s what happened with the oil,” Moustafa told me in November 2019. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you want to take the oil? Yeah, take the oil. We’ve got to take the oil.’ So that ended up becoming the reason that he would keep anyone there.”
The actual oil in the region is not worth much. Syrian petroleum production was falling even before the civil war, and the Islamic State at its peak only made about $1.5 million per day from Deir al-Zor’s wells.
But its location is important. Deir al-Zor lies right along the line of contact between the SDF and the Assad regime. By holding that “oil region” as well as the U.S. base at Al-Tanf, U.S. forces can surround Iran’s military supply lines on two different sides. This makes Iranian forces in Syria vulnerable to an attack by U.S. forces or allies.
Assad is also sensitive about the oil, as his regime has had trouble meeting its people’s fuel needs. Russian mercenaries attacked the SDF on Assad’s behalf in February 2018 to try (unsuccessfully) to take the oil fields in Deir al-Zor.
To make matters more complicated, foreign companies are forbidden from dealing with the oil under European and U.S. economic sanctions. So the Syrian Kurdish oil ministry has been forced to rely on smugglers, whose leaky storage tanks and backyard refineries have become a serious threat to public health.
The situation looked as if it could change in April 2020, when the U.S. Treasury Department issued a special sanctions exemption to a little-known company called Delta Crescent Energy. Jeffrey and Rayburn then met with politicians in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan to discuss opening a route for Delta Crescent Energy to export the oil, The New Republic later reported.
Graham and Pompeo finally went public with those discussions during a Senate hearing in July 2020. “I talked to General Mazloum yesterday, with the SDF,” Graham said. “Apparently they’ve signed a deal with an American oil company to modernize the oil fields in northeastern Syria. Are you supportive of that?”
“We are,” Pompeo responded. “The deal took a little longer, senator, than we had hoped, and now we’re in implementation.”
Delta Crescent Energy partner James Cain told Politico that the company’s goal was “to get the production back up to where it was before the civil war and sanctions.” But there was a problem: The Syrian Kurds, who control that land, were not completely on board. Ahed Al Hendi, a Syrian-American activist who works with the SDF, called Pompeo’s announcement premature. Abed Hamed al-Mehbash, the Arab co-chairman of the SDF’s civilian administration, told local media only that he planned to “study requests by many Russian and American companies.”
Mazloum Abdi, the Kurdish general, later confirmed to Al-Monitor that Delta Crescent Energy was involved in northeastern Syria but said that talks were “advancing slowly.”
The SDF knew that announcing an oil deal with America—and no one else—would be provocative. Indeed, it has been. Assad’s foreign ministry quickly denounced the agreement as a scheme to “steal Syria’s oil” and “an assault against Syria’s sovereignty.”
In August 2020, an Iranian-backed militia fired rockets at a U.S.-controlled oil field in Syria. That same week, pro-Assad gunmen got into a shootout with U.S. troops at a checkpoint in Qamishli, near the Turkish border.
The week after, a Russian armored truck rammed into a U.S. humvee, injuring at least four Americans. Russian and U.S. troops in Syria had seen tense encounters with each other before, but this was the first violent clash between the two armies.
Russia and Iran did not tie the clashes directly to the oil deal, but the message was clear: A more entrenched U.S. presence in Syria would meet harder resistance.
According to a September 2020 report by Eva Kahan at the Institute for the Study of War, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have also been secretly backing Arab insurgents against the SDF in Deir al-Zor. Russia hopes to use the instability “to compel senior SDF leadership to accept a new deal in Syria that constrains U.S. forces or ejects them,” Kahan wrote. In other words, the continued U.S. presence has induced Russia to play good-cop, bad-cop with the Kurds.
Several local leaders have already died in mysterious shootings. In response to the violence, U.S. forces have beefed up their presence in Syria, deploying Bradley Fighting Vehicles and advanced radar systems in September.
One bad decision after another has led to the current situation. The failed U.S. effort to take out Assad helped open the space for the Islamic State, which was only defeated when the U.S. pivoted to supporting Kurdish forces. Instead of allowing the Kurds to consolidate their gains and negotiate with Assad, the U.S. tried to use them as proxies against Assad and to make a quick buck from their oil. The situation has angered both Turkey and Assad’s allies, causing them to set aside their differences and turn their sights on pushing out the U.S. presence.
National security officials kept pushing grandiose goals even as U.S. leverage crumbled away. “This isn’t a quagmire,” Jeffrey said at a May 2020 event at the Hudson Institute. “My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians.” He later praised “the stalemate we’ve put together” as “a step forward” in the region.
As Rayburn explained at a June 2020 event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Trump officials think they can use sanctions to “deny the [Assad] regime access to international financial markets until a political solution can be reached.” Pro-Assad and opposition negotiators have been meeting in Geneva to work on a new Syrian constitution, although the SDF and the Kurds have never been included in those talks.
But Ford—the former U.S. envoy who learned the hard way that Iran and Russia were unlikely to abandon their interests in Syria—is skeptical that U.S. economic sanctions will be enough to pressure Assad into accepting anything. “I think we are trying to do something with tools that will not deliver the results we want,” he says. “They can sanction the hell out of the Assad government. He doesn’t give a shit about his people!”
Syrians have faced massive inflation, fuel shortages, and breadlines over the past few months, in addition to a spiralling coronavirus crisis. (A banking crisis in nearby Lebanon is partially to blame for their woes.) But the U.S. is unlikely to lift the economic pressure: Congress passed even more sanctions aimed at deterring foreign reconstruction investment under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019.
The Biden administration may not change other aspects of the strategy, either.
Antony Blinken, the president-elect’s nominee for secretary of state, gave a speech to the Meridian Group in May 2020 outlining his approach toward Syria. “Any of us—and I start with myself—who had any responsibility for our Syria policy in the last administration has to acknowledge that we failed,” he said. “We failed to prevent horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people, internally in Syria and of course externally as refugees. It’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days.”
And yet his prescription was more of the same.
Blinken claimed that the United States still has “points of leverage,” including troops on the ground near oil-rich regions and the ability to marshall resources for Syria’s reconstruction, that could lead to better outcomes next time around. He argued that U.S. leaders should demand “some kind of political transition that reflects the desires of the Syrian people” and said that it was “virtually impossible” to imagine normalizing relations with Assad’s government.
Hof, another Obama administration alum, believes that the United States can turn the SDF-held zone into “an attractive alternative to Assad” for all Syrians. U.S. diplomats could push for this new government to take over Syria’s seat at the United Nations while U.S. forces stay to carry out a “stabilization” mission and “keep the Iranians and the regime and the Russians out.” (“We also have the ability to respond militarily to the regime with great effect and force if it resumes a program of mass civilian homicide,” Hof says. “We can do a lot of damage with cruise missiles.”)
But Ford wants America to focus on the “only really useful things we can do” at this point: to help refugees fleeing the civil war and to “negotiate with the Russians some kind of deal” that would allow the Kurds to govern themselves in peace.
Ford has recently taken a liking to the writing of Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense during the Vietnam War who later became a critic of the war effort. “Vietnam was a problem that ultimately we could not fix,” Ford says. “That’s kind of where I’m at with Syria right now.”
A Year for Building Stability and Peace
By: Sinam Mohamad On: January 15, 2021
During the year 2020, North and East Syria faced a wide variety of challenges — war, occupation, terrorism, and instability, a sharp economic downturn, a global pandemic, and more. However, we have met these challenges with determination and commitment to our people. We have acted not only for our own people, but to protect the world from the global threat of ISIS terrorism, and to act as a beacon of democracy and stability in the Middle East. Our hearts still beat with the desire to bring democracy, peace, stability, equality, and prosperity to the Middle East. We are still standing — it is the strength of the people of North and East Syria that is the rock we stand on.
That’s why 2021 is the year that the people of North and East Syria are calling upon the international community for inclusion in talks on the future of Syria. We ask to be recognized as a key player in the solution to the Syrian crisis. We are one-third of Syria. We call at minimum for the inclusion of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in the UN peace talks mandated by UNSCR 2254, as well as in the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
We have consistently acted through the Syrian crisis to benefit our people, the Middle East, and the world. We ask now for a seat at the table, a stable place in global coalitions, and acknowledgment as an indispensable part of a democratic Syria.
The challenges that we have overcome this past year in North and East Syria have been brutal. While most of the world faced the pandemic, we have faced the onset of Coronavirus with little to no trained personnel, few medical facilities, and a lack of testing machines and personal protective equipment. Our health infrastructure had been left in disarray following a decade of war and instability. But with an early unified response, including stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and public sanitization, we have kept our case numbers much lower than they may have been.
We have endured continued attacks and human rights violations by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed militias, while the rest of the world looked the other way, unable to admit that Turkey might commit these atrocities. The ongoing Turkish occupation of our region — Afrin, Serekaniye, and Gire Spi — has come with theft, murder, kidnapping, and other violations. Although Turkey may be losing favor in the West, it is still able to gain enough currency to continue to wage genocide and territorial expansionism against the Kurds and the people of North and East Syria. The people of North and East Syria have weathered Turkish attacks with the same determination with which we defeated the ISIS “caliphate.”
In 2020, our economy crashed as never before. The Syrian pound remains low. Our people are facing even higher rates of poverty. Hunger and food insecurity are soaring. We are committed to overcoming these challenges, and the administration of North and East Syria is working every day to provide food aid and water, stabilize prices of basic goods and necessities, and secure the medicines and nutrition that our people need.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) is an authority governing about one-third of Syrian territory and five million people. The AANES provides daily services to millions of Syrians including education, electricity, water, sanitation, and security in North and East Syria. Its security forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are a steadfast ally to the United States and a partner to the US State Department’s Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Known in the West for its Kurdish Protection Units and women fighters, the SDF’s defeat of the ISIS “caliphate” was announced by President Trump in March 2019 and celebrated across the world.
So it is time that we were included in talks on our future. Inclusion in talks on the future of Syria will help us build upon our mission for a democratic Syria, receive humanitarian aid, expand the capabilities of our governance, and reduce the harm and suffering many are going through. It will help us rebuild after a decade of war and instability, much of which occurred as we battled the ISIS “caliphate” and kept the rest of the world safe from its violence and oppression. It will help us build momentum to recover our territory from the Turkish occupation, restore human rights and dignity to our region, and allow displaced people and refugees to finally return home.
We wish for our people, at the end of a long and bitter decade of hardship, to have the kind of stability and certainty they need to pick up the pieces of their lives. In many cases, these are pieces that they left scattered in all four corners of the world, as people became refugees elsewhere. They are still our people, whether they still reside in North and East Syria or whether they return there only in their dreams at night. So many long to return. Inclusion in talks on our future will give many the assurance they need to plan their return trip.
We wish to bring true democracy to a unified Syria, a Syria that respects the diverse communities, ethnicities, and religions of its people, a Syria that upholds equality, women’s rights, and human rights. We call for a decentralized Syria that allows communities to have power over their local governance, elected officials, and shared resources.
We are a necessary part of a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict, we are a force for democracy that is growing brighter each day, and we are an integral part of the future of Syria.
Is the Islamic State coming back?
In the past few days there have been a series of large-scale ISIS attacks in Syria. Is the Islamic State coming back?
- ERSİN ÇAKSU
- Thursday, 14 Jan 2021, 09:51
After the many attacks in Syria and Iraq in the last few days, the question for many is whether these attacks announce a comeback of the Islamic State or whether there are other factors that prompted this increase.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ended the territorial rule of the so called ‘caliphate’ with the liberation of Baghouz in March 2019. Even if thousands of ISIS jihadists have been arrested, underground, clandestine structures have formed in Iraq and Syria. In provinces such as Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Hama in Syria and Kirkuk, Baghdad and Anbar in Iraq, these networks have been carrying out attacks from time to time. The frequency and quality of these attacks has increased significantly in the last few days.
Dozens of attacks since early December
Since December 2020, the Islamic State has carried out eight attacks in Deir ez-Zor, eight in Raqqa, ten in Hama, five in Homs and two in the Aleppo area. Shortly before the end of the year, ISIS bloodiest attack took place, leaving at least 28 Damascus soldiers dead on the road between Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) speaks of dozens of Syrian government soldiers and militia killed in ISIS attacks in the desert near Hama.
Damascus is not doing anything serious against ISIS
The presence of the Islamic State in the desert to the west of Deir ez-Zor, i.e. in the area under the control of the Assad regime, has never been a secret. However, as it is, the Damascus regime and its supporters have never waged a serious fight against the Islamic State presence there. According to observers, this was because of the plan to put pressure on US-backed groups in the Tanef region on the Jordanian border. It must also be noted that this region is on the route from Bukemal, the main route of Iranian militias to Iraq, something which led to a wide range of speculations.
Turkey’s Role in Reviving ISIS
The biggest factor that led to the resurgence of ISIS, however, was the invasion carried out by the Turkish state in northern Syria. Following this invasion, many ISIS members withdrew to the areas under Turkish rule. Many of them escaped from internment camps and prisons in northern Syria with the help of Turkey. The presence and reorganization of the Islamic State in the areas under Turkish control is an open secret.
SDF operations continued
The SDF carried out targeted operations against the Islamic State networks and were able to discover and neutralise several jihadist cells, especially in the Deir ez-Zor region. In 2020, two large-scale SDF operations and 25 targeted operations against these cells took place in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa provinces. Hundreds of alleged Islamic State members were arrested and large quantities of weapons were confiscated.
The areas under ISIS control
Siyamend Elî, press officer at the YPG, said in an interview with ANF that ISIS was tolerated by various forces involved in Syria, precisely in the places where the attacks are taking place, and added: “After the neutralisation of ISIS in Baghouz, it continued to exist mainly in al-Bukamal, Deir ez-Zor, Palmyra and Hama. In fact, some forces have allowed ISIS to continue to exist there in order to be able to use it as a tool in the future.”
ISIS used this phase as a time for training and reorganising and also to change its strategy, said the YPG representative adding: “ISIS is now carrying out many more surprise attacks and has increased its forces.”
Russia focused on Northern Syria
Elî recalled that Russia and Iran came to Syria allegedly “to protect Syrian territory”, but that both forces are not concerned with rural areas, but rather focused on “cities that are strategically important for them.”
Elî said: “Russia’s concentration on Til Temir and Ain Issa, and on Northern Syria in general, gave ISIS the opportunity to carry out these attacks.” He underlined that ISIS is not a priority for Russia. Israel’s attacks on Iranian armed forces have led to an increased of attacks by ISIS in these regions, said the press spokesman for the YPG, noting that the regime would not be able to wage war without Iran and Russia.
“Coordination with the SDF necessary”
Elî said: “Russia and the regime should coordinate with the SDF in the fight against ISIS and the small groups that appear under different names. If this does not happen, the situation east of the Euphrates will become very serious. That is why ISIS has been able to act by surprise against Russia and the regime.”
The attacks put a strain on the regional balance of power
Journalist Nazım Daştan is also following developments in the region closely and does not see the increase in ISIS attacks as a coincidental development. To speak about a revival of ISIS is “still a little too early” but, said Dastan: “ISIS is coming to the surface again. Even if I don’t think this will happen on a large scale, it can put a strain on the balance of power in the region. The attacks may increase further in the coming days.”
“The international powers neutralize each other”
Daştan pointed out that the United States and Russia continued to try to define their territories and thus determine the borders in Syria. This results in a space from which ISIS can carry out its attacks. Daştan said: “We can see this as a process in which the international powers and regional powers measure each other anew for the year 2021.”
As for the position of ISIS, Daştan added: “It will be difficult to revive such a discredited force on an earlier scale. However, ISIS can use this process, in which international forces are actually busy weakening each other, as an opportunity for its reorganization and strengthening.”
ISIS increases attacks in Raqqa as Turkish-backed forces shell Ain al-Issa
One expert noted that the Russia and Syrian regime attempts to push the SDF to withdraw from the Ain al-Issa area and shelling by Turkish-backed rebels is “giving ISIS cells greater ability to conduct attacks deep behind the SDF lines.”
Wladimir van Wilgenburg January 12 2021 02:05
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The so-called Islamic State has claimed seven terrorist attacks in Syria’s Raqqa province in the past ten days, amid increased shelling of Kurdish-led security forces by Turkish-backed groups in the town of Ain al-Issa.
The attacks terrorist attacks included improvised explosive device (IEDs) bombings and hit-and-run assaults against the Internal Security forces (ISF), also known as Asayish, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) both inside Raqqa city and the province’s countryside.
The Raqqa Asayish has confirmed at least two of the incidents. According to the ISF, one of the attacks occurred on January 6, in eastern rural of Raqqa, resulting in the deaths of two of their Arab members. Another one took place on January 4, later claimed by the Islamic State inside the city, resulted in the injury of several civilians.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) also reported that a civilian was injured in an IED explosion that targeted a vehicle in the al-Malahi area of Raqqa city on Sunday.
“The considerable increase in attacks in Raqqa is a significant indicator of ISIS’s rising capability of conducting attacks beyond its active operating zone of Deir Ez-Zor,” Mohammad Ibrahim, a Syrian researcher and analyst who focuses on northeast Syria, told Kurdistan 24.
“ISIS repeatedly proves its swift resilience and ability to hit various regions whenever it finds security gaps. The ISF and SDF are currently hugely distracted in northern rural Raqqa, in Ain Issa, where there are daily clashes between SDF and Turkey-backed Islamist armed groups,” he added.
Over the past two months, there have been increased Turkish-backed shelling and fighting near the Ain al-Issa town in the Raqqa province.
According to Ibrahim, the increasing pressure by Russia and Syrian regime forces to push the SDF to withdraw from the Ain al-Issa area and shelling by Turkish-backed rebels is “giving ISIS cells more ability to conduct attacks deep behind the SDF lines.”
Raqqa was liberated from the Islamic State in October 2017 by the SDF with support from the US-led coalition.
Despite the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the US-led coalition announcing the defeat of the extremist group’s so-called caliphate on March 23, 2019, Islamic State sleeper cell attacks continue in areas that were liberated from the militants, including in Raqqa.
In 2020, most Islamic State activities took place in Deir al-Zor province, with Raqqa province coming in second place. The terror group’s propaganda outfit, al-Bayan, suggested that it had claimed 389 attacks in Deir al-Zor in 2020 and another 59 in Raqqa.
Charles Flynn, a Syria-based researcher at the Rojava Information Centre(RIC), told Kurdistan 24 that the Islamic State has also increased its attacks in the southern Raqqa countryside, controlled by the Syrian government.
“We’ve seen increasing number of Russian airstrikes against ISIS targets west of the Euphrates, as well as several ambushes conducted by ISIS that have produced large number of casualties against the SAA (Syrian Arab Army).”
Editing by Khrush Najari
The US Is Trying to Undermine the Kurds’ Revolutionary Ambitions
By Edward Hunt New Jacobin
The US government claims to be supporting the Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS. But it is attempting to bring a more moderate leadership to power in a bid to weaken the Kurds’ revolutionary project in Rojava. Washington will never be a friend of self-determination.
Last September, the United States began sending additional troops into northeast Syria, where hundreds of US soldiers are helping Kurdish forces fight the remnants of ISIS. The move represented a sharp change for the Trump administration, which had pulled US forces from the Turkish border the previous year, facilitating a brutal Turkish attack on the Kurdish homeland of Rojava.
Yet despite predictions that Trump’s betrayal would bring an end to the Kurds’ leftist social revolution in Rojava, the Kurds have been remarkably resilient. Not only have they managed to endure more than a year of ongoing Turkish attacks, but they have continued forging an inspiring experiment in direct democracy, drawing praise from observers who visit the area.
Rojava “has the best religious freedom conditions in the Middle East and has the best conditions for women,” said Nadine Maenza, a US commissioner for religious freedom, when she visited Rojava this past October.
While the Kurds have defied the odds, they are now facing new threats — particularly from the United States. Over the past year, US diplomats have been calling on Kurdish leaders to share power with rival politicians who do not hold the same revolutionary views.
Participants portray recent talks as a well-intentioned effort to create Kurdish unity.
But the talks are more accurately seen as a bid by Washington to appease Turkey, maintain a foothold in Syria, and, perhaps most crucially, moderate the Kurds’ revolutionary ambitions.
The Syrian Kurds, Trump’s Betrayal, and the Aftermath
For the past several years, the United States has been working with Kurdish forces in northeast Syria in the war against ISIS. By providing the Kurds with arms, money, training, air cover, and logistics support, the United States has enabled them to wage an effective military campaign that has left the group defeated and largely dismantled.
This partnership has ramped up tensions with Turkey, which has been waging a decades-long war against the Kurdish people. The Turkish government has accused the Syrian Kurds of being part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish resistance group, and portrays both the PKK and Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists who must be destroyed.
Although Trump has periodically praised the Kurds for their military courage, he has repeatedly enabled Turkish aggression.
The international left has largely supported the Kurds, inspired by their efforts to lead a leftist social revolution in Rojava. As the Syrian state withdrew its forces from northeast Syria during the early stages of the country’s civil war, leftist Kurds began transforming the area into an autonomous region. They empowered women and ethnic minorities to participate in local and regional politics and promoted a vision of “democratic confederalism” rooted in egalitarian economics and political participation.
The Kurds’ vision of democratic confederalism has led them to begin building a revolutionary new society that is democratically administered by small, decentralized self-governing units. Local communities and ethnic groups participate in communes, neighborhood councils, and district councils, where they decide how to run their communities and manage their resources. By adopting the principle of dual leadership, the Kurds have empowered men and women to work alongside each other as equal partners at all levels of society. If Rojava is successful, it could become the basis for a new kind of egalitarian and self-governing society.
Officials in Washington have always harbored serious concerns about their partnership with the revolutionary Kurds. They have refused to recognize Rojava as an autonomous region within Syria and have displayed a reckless disregard for Rojava’s security, looking the other way as Turkey periodically launched attacks like the brutal invasion of Afrin in 2018.
The Trump administration has been one of the greatest threats to Rojava. Although Trump has periodically praised the Kurds for their military courage, he has repeatedly enabled Turkish aggression. When administration officials announced in October 2019 they would begin drawing US troops away from the Turkish border, they cleared the way for Turkey’s right-wing nationalist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to launch a military operation that killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Turkey “had to have it cleaned out,” Trump said, justifying the ethnic cleansing.
But Trump’s decision sparked a backlash, including from many US officials, and he backtracked by keeping a small contingent of US troops in northeast Syria. After Russian and Syrian forces moved into the area, administration officials announced that about five hundred US soldiers would continue working with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to guard the region’s oil and fight the remnants of the Islamic State.
“We’re still partnering with the SDF,” then secretary of defense Mark Esper acknowledged several weeks after Turkey’s invasion. “We’re still providing assistance to them.”
US Support for Leftist Revolutionaries?
Many US officials have commended the Kurds for building a stable political system in a war-torn country.
In recent months, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has taken the lead within the US government in highlighting the Kurds’ achievements in Rojava. In its annual report, a public hearing, and an op-ed, the commission praised the Kurds for creating an inclusive society that provides religious freedom to its diverse residents.
US commissioner Nadine Maenza, who visited Rojava in October and November, repeatedly extolled the Kurds for creating a system of self-government that empowers the local population.
“They set up all these committees and they start literally meeting the needs of the community,” Maenza said. “They did it in a way that promoted ethnic diversity, religious diversity, acceptance of one another. . . . It created conditions that are unique to the rest of the Middle East.”
More recently, some high-level officials in Washington have offered similar words of praise. “They seem to be somewhat successful in bringing all these pockets of different ethnic backgrounds together under one sort of democracy that actually seems to be working,” Texas representative Michael McCaul, a Republican, said at a congressional hearing earlier this month.
But as the Kurds well know, US officials often have other motives in mind when showering them with praise — namely, their military prowess.
When ISIS forces began rampaging across northern Syria and western Iraq in 2014 and 2015, US officials discovered that Kurdish militias were the only forces that could hold back the onslaught. “They were the only people who could fight effectively against ISIS at the time,” a State Department official told Congress in 2019.
Over the course of the war, Kurdish fighters made great sacrifices, losing more than ten thousand soldiers. “We outsourced the dying to them,” one US official later admitted.
Now, with ISIS mostly vanquished, Washington has presented a new rationale for supporting the Kurds. Because the Kurds control about one-third of Syrian territory, US officials believe they hold significant leverage over Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. As long as the Kurds remain in command of Rojava, US officials wager, Assad will not be able to reestablish control over Syria.
Rojava “is the United States’ greatest single point of leverage in Syria,” the congressionally mandated Syria Study Group (SSG) noted in a major report in 2019.
This was one of the main reasons Turkey’s attack on Rojava in October 2019 upset some US officials. The president’s “approach has ceded U.S. leverage over a future political solution in Syria,” Florida representative Ted Deutch complained. The co-chairs of the Syria Study Group agreed, condemning the Trump administration for “forgoing an important source of leverage.”
With US forces once again working alongside the Kurds, many US officials believe they have salvaged that leverage. Even if Trump’s actions weakened the United States’ foothold in Syria, they remain convinced that Washington can use what remains of Kurdish control of Rojava to pressure Assad into a political agreement that results in him leaving office.
Antony Blinken, who is slated to become secretary of state in the incoming Biden administration, views Rojava as a key element of US strategy. “That’s a point of leverage because the Syrian government would love to have dominion over those resources,” Blinken said last year. “We should not give that up for free.”
US Opposition to Leftist Revolution
Viewing the Kurds as strategically important partners, US officials have been reluctant to criticize them. Only rarely have they revealed their opposition to the Kurds’ revolutionary aspirations.
In December 2017, former US diplomat Stuart Jones sent one signal when he urged Congress to make sure Washington’s partnership with the Kurds “does not create a political monopoly for a political organization that is really hostile to U.S. values and ideology.”
Many US officials and establishment thinkers are doing what they can to bring a less revolutionary Kurdish leadership to power.
In 2019, the Syria Study Group provided another sign when it complained that the main revolutionary Kurdish party in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), had been using the SDF’s cooperation with the United States to establish a civilian government at odds with US preferences. “The United States never explicitly pledged support for Kurdish autonomy or self-rule in Syria,” the study group insisted.
One of the clearest signs of US opposition came during a congressional hearing in October 2019, when US senator Jeff Merkley repeatedly asked then State Department official James Jeffrey about his views on the revolution.
“There was, to be fair, a widely circulated vision of Rojava,” Merkley explained. The Kurds envisioned a “self-governed autonomous area with a whole philosophy of democratic control.”
Jeffrey responded by agreeing with Merkley’s characterization of the Kurdish vision, even suggesting that the Kurds might achieve their revolutionary goals, but insisted that the United States did not back the revolution. “I want to emphasize that this vision, which is the vision of our partners, was never the American vision,” Jeffrey said.
And US officials are keen on making their own vision come to fruition. Many US officials and establishment thinkers are doing what they can to bring a less revolutionary Kurdish leadership to power.
In a 2018 policy brief, the Brookings Institution argued that the United States should encourage the PYD to share power with the much smaller Kurdish National Council (ENKS), an opposition umbrella group hosted by Turkey. The brief suggested that a power-sharing agreement could prevent the PYD from creating an autonomous region inside Syria. The United States could adopt “a posture that is accommodating of Turkish national security concerns,” the brief noted.
Turkey’s attack on Rojava in October 2019 put significant pressure on Kurdish leaders to take Washington’s concerns into consideration. Shortly after the assault, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi agreed to begin talks with opposition leaders, and US officials urged the two sides to create a unity government that incorporated ENKS leaders.
US diplomat William Roebuck, who played a central role in facilitating the talks, noted in an internal memo that he wanted to see Rojava’s political structure “evolve” by “including Kurds outside the PYD and more empowered, independent Arabs.”
After several rounds of negotiations in early 2020, one of which Roebuck attended, the two Kurdish sides came to an agreement. On June 17, Kurdish leaders announced they had reached a “common political vision” over how to govern Rojava.
Roebuck, who participated in the ceremony, praised both sides for their efforts. “They have shown flexibility and intelligence in the way that they have dealt with this,” he said.
The US Embassy in Syria agreed, issuing a statement that described the agreement as “an important first step towards greater political coordination between Syrian Kurdish political factions with the support of the United States.”
Although it remains unclear whether the deal will create a pathway for ENKS leaders to acquire political power, the accord is a major political victory for the United States — and a blow to the Kurds’ revolutionary ambitions.
The Future of Rojava
Despite the Kurds’ many achievements, the future of Rojava remains in doubt. Even if the revolutionaries find some way to withstand growing US pressure, the Kurds still face an existential threat from Turkey.
Turkey’s invasion in October 2019 expelled hundreds of thousands of people from numerous towns that Ankara’s forces and their allied militias continue to occupy. As part of the military operation, Turkey drove a huge wedge between the western and eastern parts of Rojava.
US officials insist that they are trying to create unity among various Kurdish political parties, but what they are really trying to do is create a more moderate Kurdish leadership. They want to appease Turkey, maintain US forces in Syria, and bring the revolution in Rojava to an end.
Turkish leaders continue to back militants that launch periodic attacks on the Kurdish people. The very day that the Kurds in Rojava announced their unity deal, Turkey launched a major offensive against the Kurdish region of Iraq, even receiving encouragement from the Trump administration. Recent reports indicate that Turkey is preparing to mount another attack on Rojava.
The Kurds have also lost much of the leverage they had over the Syrian government. After Turkey invaded Rojava in October 2019, Kurdish leaders had no choice but to invite Syrian and Russian forces into the area for protection. US officials estimate that between four thousand and ten thousand Syrian forces now occupy various parts of northeast Syria.
Russia has also been pressuring the Kurds, despite the fact that Russian military forces initially came to their assistance during the Turkish attack. Russian leaders are intent on bringing Rojava back into the orbit of the Syrian government, which Russia has been backing in the Syrian Civil War. In early 2020, Russia closed an Iraqi border crossing that had been supplying Rojava with about 40 percent of its medical aid.
The coronavirus and economic woes are still another challenge for the Kurds. Reports indicate that the virus is spreading through Rojava; officials have periodically placed cities into total lockdown. On the economic side, rapid inflation has made it difficult for people to purchase basic goods and essentials. Farmers are struggling to find buyers for their crops. US sanctions have worsened the crisis.
“Ordinary people are having trouble buying the basic goods that they need to survive,” US diplomat William Roebuck acknowledged last August.
Through it all, officials in Washington insist they are still supporting the Kurds. They continue paying the Kurds to manage several camps that are holding about ten thousand detained Islamic State fighters and about seventy thousand civilians, many of whom are the wives, children, and family members of ISIS fighters.
Hundreds of US soldiers remain on the ground in Rojava, where they continue working with Kurdish forces to target remaining pockets of jihadists. Although the Trump administration has announced troop drawdowns in Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan, US officials have indicated that they will maintain a military presence in Rojava.
The incoming Biden administration remains something of a wild card, but president-elect Joe Biden has signaled he intends to keep working with the Kurds. In 2019, Biden said that “it makes a lot of sense” to keep several hundred US troops in Rojava “to protect the Kurds and provide for security in the region.” Other US officials have indicated that there will be no immediate changes in US policy under the Biden administration.
Much more quietly, however, Washington continues meddling in Kurdish politics. US officials insist that they are trying to create unity among various Kurdish political parties, but what they are really trying to do is create a more moderate Kurdish leadership. They want to appease Turkey, maintain US forces in Syria, and bring the revolution in Rojava to an end.
In short, the United States has begun a major new battle for Rojava — and Kurdish liberation is their last concern.