KOBANI, Syria — Last week in Northeast Syria, one thought struck me when it came to the battle against the so-called Islamic State: If the ISIS fight is over, no one has told ISIS.
I have been watching Raqqa closely since April, including from the ground. A shift in U.S. policy that would remove American troops from Northeast Syria would jeopardize the gains U.S. troops and their partner Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, have fought — and sacrificed — to achieve.
Raqqa’s stability exists because of that partnership, but it remains extremely fragile. ISIS sleeper cells are trying to find footholds, take advantage of Raqqa’s shortage of services, and make it harder for the U.S.-backed coalition stop their reemergence. So far, U.S.-backed forces have been able to keep the pressure on enough to allow moms and dads I have met to push forward with their lives. If Raqqa is not to become Baghdad in its worst moments, the pressure must be continued. If those U.S.-backed forces are forced to go it alone, there will be four winners: ISIS, the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran.
I have had the privilege of traveling to Northeast Syria five times since August 2017. And what you see on the ground is a story of fragile gains and forward momentum amid great challenge. It is of the few stories of significant, one-directional progress created by U.S. policy and executed by U.S.-backed forces in the post-9/11 conflicts. Because of those U.S.-backed forces, where ISIS once ruled a level of stability now allows beauty shop owners, perfume entrepreneurs, civil society leaders and teachers to get back to work rebuilding their city and escaping extremism.
That few Americans know fully the positive dividends of a policy executed in their names is a testament to this moment’s lack of attention on all things international. It is also a reflection of the Trump administration’s understandable desire to assuage the concerns of NATO ally Turkey, which views the Kurds who have risked their lives to lead the fight against ISIS as terrorists.
No one would argue that ignoring Turkey’s security concerns is the correct path for U.S. policy. But neither is abandoning the troops whose young generation has laid down its life — over and over again, in city after city, in the ISIS fight.
Walk through cemeteries in Kobani and Qamishil and see the white marble rows remembering daughters and sons killed battling ISIS. Photos of young women and young men whose parents will never greet them or hug them again are pasted against the headstones. These are the young people who have sacrificed all to free territory from ISIS control. And these are the people who still today are fighting ISIS and seeking to bring real stability for the women and men who survived the horror of ISIS. Little ones I’ve met who witnessed beheadings. Moms who shielded their children’s eyes from hangings. These forces risk their lives every day in the ISIS fight. And their work has allowed visitors to drive across the region for hours without getting shaken down or ripped off, or far worse, because of the security they have brought to the ground. This is the tempered victory against ISIS that will be jeopardized if U.S. troops leave the region.
Last week in the town of Tabqa, I waited to speak with a local security forces commander. After an hour I received a call saying ISIS had targeted her vehicle and placed an IED under it as she left Raqqa. She survived. But the attack was a sign that the reemergence and transformation of ISIS is an ongoing, on-the-ground battle consuming the SDF’s focus. And though policymakers and media in the U.S. may have moved on, fallen under the impression that the battle is over, local forces who face them each day and each night and do not enjoy this luxury.
Ignoring Turkey’s concerns is not an option. But this is a moment for U.S.-backed diplomatic energy to assuage Turkey’s concerns without removing U.S. troops. Too much is at stake, including America’s credibility in the region, gains made by moms and dads and teachers and shopkeepers and hairdressers I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and the reemergence of ISIS, which has not stopped in its quest to threaten Syria, the region and the U.S.