Of all the post-9/11 conflicts, the one story of uninterrupted fragile, real, and endangered progress the United States has achieved is in northern Syria. Now comes the U.S. decision that could allow Turkey to launch an offensive in northeastern Syria. This would leave those who fought in partnership with America and against ISIS for the past five years sitting in the crosshairs, as Syrians await the promised Turkish military campaign aimed directly at them.
On Monday, I spoke by phone to Mazlum Abdi, the commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, whose cemeteries sit full of white marble tombstones honoring young people who perished in the ISIS fight.
“Honestly, we were surprised by this decision because the security mechanism was ongoing and it was working and we did our best,” said Abdi, referring to an August 2019 security agreement the U.S. established with Turkey to assuage its concerns about SDF’s proximity to its border. “We did everything on our end to help this succeed.”
President Trump’s decision reflects a larger frustration with America’s wars abroad. “I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars, where our great Military functions as a policing operation to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA,” he said, in a Monday tweet defending his decision to pull from northern Syria.
This is the second administration which believes deeply it was elected to end wars in the Middle East, not launch them. But it is the first to have seen the fruits of a policy of “by, with and through” that has largely succeeded. Syrians I’ve met on the ground say they are thankful the Americans have remained in the region.
America’s presence in northern Syria is not about loyalty or an expansive military footprint on the ground; it is about national security and whether the United States will keep pressure on ISIS and — something that deserves more attention, as the administration has noted — force U.S. allies to step up and take responsibility for their own citizens who fought for the Islamic State.
We have arrived at a moment where U.S. power could make a difference in creating a deal that would keep the ISIS fight in focus while stabilizing the region and succeeding at convincing allies to share more of the burden. Or the U.S. can decide to leave their battlefield partner to face on its own a NATO ally.
Those who lead the U.S.-backed forces see the consequences standing right before them.
“If this decision is implemented, of course a fight is going to erupt between us and the Turks in the northern border,” said Abdi, noting that he hopes it does not come to this. “If our partners and our allies don’t put big pressure on Turkey, it is only a matter of days.”
Abdi urged U.S. leaders to consider just how much this decision will place at risk all of the gains of the counter-ISIS fight.
“This will lead to a security vacuum that ISIS will take advantage of and which will be in the ISIS interest,” he said. “This is going to jeopardize all the achievements we have made with the coalition against ISIS.”
This is not a moment for platitudes. Here’s what gains the U.S. has made in northern Syria:
First, achieving the territorial defeat of ISIS with fewer than five U.S. combat deaths. The U.S.-backed forces bore the casualties of the grueling block-by-block ISIS fight. More than 10,000 SDF members died in that fight.
Second, the U.S. has established an Oz-like presence in northern Syria in which you never — ever — see American forces on the ground, but in which U.S. interests are protected. This is one “by, with and through” operation that has worked. Local forces who did the ground fighting are able to keep Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime, ISIS and, until now, NATO ally Turkey’s security concerns at bay while allowing moms and dads to send their kids to school in fragile but real stability. In a neighborhood of the region that is ground zero for extremism and the fight against the Islamic State, local women and men are leading their own fight for their children’s future. The United States is the invisible presence which has, even with fewer than 2.000 forces, enabled stability on the ground by keeping other actors at bay and letting local forces do their jobs protecting people.
Third, the United States has a partner on the ground that it trusts deeply and who has done what Washington asked. This is a non-state actor that now imprisons ISIS fighters whom it has battled since 2014, and which has taken responsibility for more than 70,000 ISIS families — folks no one else in the world has wanted and whose home countries, in the case of most foreigners, don’t want them back.
Finally, women have played a central role in the fight against ISIS and have reshaped their societies in the process — across the region and across ethnic groups. While in Washington, I always am asked if the “women’s thing” is a Washington creation. On the ground in Syria, you can see that progress is not about “foreign influence”; instead, it’s about seeing combat-veteran women who led the fight against ISIS translate those gains into expanding roles for women across politics and civil society across the region and among all ethnic groups. The U.S. did not create or even play much of a role in this phenomenon, it simply benefits from it.
In the last two years, I frequently joked that there was more of a can-do spirit and a sense that positive change was possible in northeastern Syria than northwest Washington, D.C. America has a moment in which it can engage with its wars, acknowledge the gains and push for an outcome that would not leave the ISIS fight in tatters or a yawning security vacuum in the region.
It is not only up to the White House. It is up to Americans to care.