‘Oh My God, Why Are They Doing This?’ Northeastern Syrians Await Their Fate
A massive humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Syria. Over 130,000 civilians have been displaced in a once relatively stable region. Dozens of civilians have been killed or injured. Horrific videos showing field executions by Turkish-backed armed factions have begun to circulate on social media. The fate of the area, home to over three million people, is now increasingly unclear – thanks to President Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from northeastern Syria.
Fighters from Brigade 123 of Ahrar al-Sharqiya (1st Corps of the Turkish-backed “National Army”) film themselves field executing a young man who they say is “a pig of the party [PKK].”
This apparently took place near the M4 highway, south of Ras al-Ayn. pic.twitter.com/aQWSXThcyw
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) October 12, 2019
“Oh my God, why are they doing this?” Ahmed, an activist living in Deir Ezzor, told me upon learning of the U.S.’s intentions.
Others were angry. “This is a great betrayal,” said Shiyar, a professor at Rojava University. He was immediately thinking about how to keep his family safe. “I want to leave Syria, but the border is closed and smugglers are asking for huge amounts of money.” The journey would be perilous too. “How can I take my young children and disabled daughter through rivers and mountains?” he asked me.
The beginning of the end of the autonomous region of northeastern Syria commenced as the result of a fateful phone call last Sunday between President Trump and the Turkish President Erdoğan, a call which led the President to allow a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, an area under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces that liberated the country from ISIS. The Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, announced on October 13 a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the area Turkey is targeting, a first step toward leaving the region entirely.
Residents of northeastern Syria understand that their fate is now in the hands of the highly fickle U.S. President. Locals regularly check his Twitter feed for updates, using Google Translate to try to grasp of the content, often turning to me to ask whether the produced translation is correct (it is often not, in part due to the jumbled original content, which confounds Google’s algorithms). Similarly to think-tanks analysts, Syrians try to divine if the U.S. intends to forcefully intervene to stop the offensive, based on Trump’s inconsistent statements and tweets. The United States has now clearly signaled that it will not.
This means the abandonment of the population of northeastern Syria to the mercy of Turkey and the regime, which is circling overhead and trying to bite off as much territory as possible. Reports about an initial deal between the SDF’s leadership and Damascus indicate that to prevent destruction, displacement and demographic re-engineering, the SDF chose to avoid resisting further.
And locals know all too well what to expect from a Turkish invasion. Abdul Fatah is a policeman living in Tel Abyad, a majority-Arab town that fell to the invading forces, which was previously the major ISIS smuggling hub from Turkey, before its liberation by the SDF in 2015. Fatah told me he expected that the Turkish-backed faction “will harass women, steal money and even the chickens.” In areas under their control, “every faction does what it wants, kidnapping people for ransom.”
The flat terrain along the border means civilians have nowhere to hide and must flee. “They are attacking us with jets and artillery, and in our areas… there is not a single mountain in which we can hide,” said Amer, a young man from Amûdê who decided to stay in his town and fight the invading force, while all civilians fled. If civilians had remained, he explained “with one mortar they can kill many women and children.”
Life under an oppressive and re-emboldened Assad regime looks like it will become the fate of the very same people who helped the U.S. win the war against ISIS.
In 2014, after ISIS broke into Iraq and took over a third of the country in weeks, the Obama administration realized that ignoring ISIS had allowed the organization to metastasize and become a global threat. The administration looked for partners on the ground in Syria and decided to align itself with the YPG — the People’s Protection Units — a Kurdish militia engaged in fighting with ISIS. The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which has also waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since the 1980s. The U.S. chose to partner with this unlikely ally having failed in its efforts to convince Syrian rebels, focused on fighting the Assad regime, to stop doing so and fight ISIS instead.
The U.S. began providing assistance to the YPG in September 2014 and in 2015, the YPG and Arab militias formed the SDF. After peace talks between Turkey and the PKK broke down in 2015, and as SDF advanced further south with American support to liberate large swaths of Syria from ISIS control, Turkey grew increasingly worried. Following repeated Turkish threats to invade northeastern Syria, Trump abandoned the security mechanism deal his officials helped broker along the Turkish-Syrian border, greenlighting the invasion.
Now, with U.S. protection removed, the population fears a repeat of the scenario of Efrîn, the once-Kurdish majority area in northern Aleppo. Since it fell to the Turks and the abusive Syrian factions the arm in 2018, the area underwent a significant demographic change. Many homes belonging to Kurds who fled during the offensive and have been prevented from returning are now settled by Arabs displaced from formerly rebel-held pockets in Syria.
The Turkish operation, unironically named “Peace Spring,” seeks to create a so-called “safe zone” in which one to three million Syrian refugees will be sent from Turkey. Most of these refugees are Arab, and thus even the official operation plan raises fears of demographic re-engineering. The border area is the most densely populated, including the largest city in the region, Qamişlo, and almost all major Kurdish-majority towns.
On the morning of October 8, as Turkish jets and artillery began to strike border towns, panic ensued. Narîman, an author who lived in Ras al-Ayn, one of the towns witnessing the fiercest fighting, was aroused from her sleep at 4 AM, to the sound of Turkish shelling. Shelling was followed by airstrikes, resulting in death and injuries of civilians and mass flight of almost all of the town’s residents.
“They are bombing civilians, population centers,” Narîman said. She fled with her family further south, passing cars loaded with families carrying all their belongings. Her brother returned to the town after driving them and reported that airstrikes on civilian neighborhoods are ongoing. Narîman lost a nephew and multiple second cousins to the war against ISIS.
Fleeing civilians tell CNN they don’t know where to go
— CNN (@CNN) October 9, 2019
Others tried to flee to areas they presumed would be safer from the Turkish onslaught. Shiyar, the professor who lived in Qamişlo, lost two cousins in the fight against ISIS. He could not calm his children down who kept crying as the sound of occasional artillery explosions rattled residents.
On the second day of the invasion, he decided to flee. He had to beg a friend who owns a car to take his family to Dêrik, further east. “I could hear his children crying, asking him not to leave,” he told me, but the friend agreed nonetheless.
Dêrik is also adjacent to the Turkish border, but because of the presence of headquarters of international NGOs in town, locals fleeing to it assume it will be safer. Civilians from Kobanî, a town that survived months of ISIS siege in 2014, reportedly fled to an American base near Raqqa, demanding to be let in.
The first sign of the U.S. ending its commitment to protecting the Kurds came on October 7, when American forces pulled out of their border positions in Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. It sent shockwave and terror through the local population, made up of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Yazidis.
“There was immense disappointment,” Abdul Fatah told me. “After God, they were the ones in which we put our trust. They left us up for grabs for Erdoğan and his mercenaries.”
This sense of betrayal was pervasive. According to the SDF, the force lost 11,000 fighters in the campaign against ISIS. “He who is covered by the Americans remains cold,” Abdullah, an activist living under SDF control in Deir Ezzor, an entirely Arab region, told me. “People here are saying the Russians are more faithful to their allies than the Americans.”
“The world abandoned us,” Hassan, a former activist living in Raqqa, told me. “It abandoned the weak people.”
Hassan and Abdullah are highly critical of the SDF, in part due to the limitations they place on civil society activism. But they see them as the best alternative available to the residents of the area.
When I met Eziz, an activist, in Amûdê, in another border town back in July, he asked me to visit the cemetery of the young men and women who were killed fighting ISIS in the ranks of the SDF. He gently caressed the image of a close friend attached to one of the dozens of tombs in the cemetery, then nervously smoked a cigarette, as he told me about his friend, killed in a battle in southern Hassakeh. A relative was also laid to rest in the cemetery. Now Eziz was miles away from his home. He and his family fled southward. “I guess it makes sense we’ll be exterminated and the world will just stand by and watch,” he commented bitterly.
The overwhelming majority of people in the region crave stability above all else, after years of war and displacement. Even among civilians who do not see the local institutions set up by the SDF as legitimate, when faced with the possibility of war, displacement and looting, many prefer the familiar status quo.
“Most people in Manbij are against the operation because they know it’s not just the sons of Manbij who would enter the city,” Ibrahim, who opposes the SDF and is from Manbij, a city under SDF control, told me. And those outsiders, not constrained by the opprobrium of their local community would steal. “Unfortunately, all these factions became thieves, especially since they are hungry and the fighters are themselves displaced, and some of them are just straight up criminals.”
There are exceptions to this overwhelming desire for stability. Jamal, a resident of Tel Abyad with relatives in the Turkish-backed factions, told me he welcomes the “liberation from the PKK,” arguing it would end the rule of Kurds over Arabs and forcible recruitment into SDF-linked militias.
In Deir Ezzor, the province liberated last from ISIS, some locals were initially confident that the war would not affect them significantly because it is ranging far from their areas, and the they believed the Americans would remain to protect Deir Ezzor.
Others were more worried. Abd al-Muin from Shhayl, a town witnessing frequent ISIS cell attacks, expressed the fear of a looming invasion by the regime and pro-Iranian militias in control of the western side of the province.
“The regime is beginning again to spread rumors that it’s going to cross the [Euphrates] River. People are also afraid that the SDF will withdraw from Deir Ezzor” toward the Turkish border, he said. If such a withdrawal happens, “whether the regime or ISIS takes over… this will mean massacres and revenge attacks” by the new rulers. On October 10 and 11, regime positions began firing at SDF positions across the rivers near Hajjin. Locals told me that jets targeted regime positions on the night of October 11, apparently in retaliation.
In Raqqa, once the unofficial Syrian capital of the ISIS “Caliphate,” locals’ desire for stability drove some to wish for the return of the Syrian regime. They will now likely get their wish. The town did not witness massive anti-regime protests as Deir Ezzor did during the Syrian uprising. “The rumors now is that the regime is going to enter [Raqqa],” said Hassan, the activist. Due to the unclear commitment of the U.S. to the SDF, “people have become convinced that no stability will be possible without the return of the regime,” he told me.
He reported that some families in Raqqa are sending their sons to carry out military service in the ranks of the regime to signal their allegiance to the regime, expecting the SDF will collapse soon. Ahmed, a trader in the city, agreed with Hasan’s assessment that the town’s residents are divided between supporters of the “Kurds” (the SDF), and the regime, “but in our area there is no one who wants the Turkish factions” due to their poor reputation.
The beginning of U.S. steps to end its involvement in Syria signals the end of the SDF and the autonomous self-administration system it established. The SDF, now with U.S. support withdrawn, will be forced to reach an agreement with the Assad regime, which has consistently refused to offer the Kurds any autonomy or allow the SDF to maintain any role in the future Syria. Millions of inhabitants in the region now face the choice of life under the rule of lawless Turkish-backed militias, oppressive Baath regime rule, or fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan. All these choices entail denial of basic rights, suffering and humiliation.
Elizabeth is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, focusing on the Levant. Follow her on Twitter @Elizrael.