With ISIS defeated in most of eastern Syria, the US-led coalition has a plan for “stabilization” that foresees a complex commitment to security in the region. As the Syrian civil war moves from one of conflict to more diplomatic discussions and big-power politics, eastern Syria is trying to recover from the conflict against ISIS that left some cities and areas in ruins.
Military operations can only go so far, says Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS operation that the US has helped lead since 2014. “What we try to do is provide the security to these areas, so reconstruction can begin or continue,” he says.
The main force on the ground is the Syrian Democratic Forces
, the partner of the coalition east of the Euphrates River. While the coalition and the SDF focus on fighting ISIS, there is a lot of global support needed to rebuild areas in eastern Syria. “ISIS wrecked and ravaged two countries; it is an uphill battle because they destroyed so much. You need... stabilization... and that leads to civil affairs,” says Ryan. That means reopening roads, establishing electric lines and basic things like sanitation.
In Raqqa, the former ISIS capital, sanitation is being handled by locals. In Manbij medical services are progressing. Roads and bridges are being rebuilt.
Training is a priority for the coalition. Locals are being trained to look for explosives that ISIS left behind, often called IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Police are also being trained to deal with prisons that were set up to hold former ISIS members. “That wasn’t their job in life to [work in a prison] but they take on that burden, and like I’ve said, they’ve done a great job.”
Col. Ryan says 17,000 SDF members have been trained in basic military skills. A second group of 5,000, called Raqqa Internal Security Force (RISF), has been trained in demining, law enforcement and basic security. A third group of 400, called DISF in Deir ez Zor province, has also been trained.
HOWEVER, the coalition has faced controversy in its work in eastern Syria, particularly in the area around Manbij which is near Turkey. The city was captured in 2016 and is the only area that the Syrian Democratic Forces hold west of the Euphrates. Ankara has accused the SDF of including Kurdish fighters in its ranks who are loyal to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). To prevent what Ankara saw as a PKK offensive beyond Manbij, Turkey intervened in northern Syria and bolstered the mostly Arab Syrian rebels. Manbij thus became a flash point with populist politicians in Turkey saying Ankara should attack the enclave. After the Turkish elections there are questions about what comes next, especially amid tensions between Washington and Ankara over a pastor detained in Turkey.
US threatens sanctions on Turkey over detained pastor, July 26, 2018 (Reuters)
On the ground in Manbij things are more peaceful than they appear. Under a road map between Washington and Ankara, there are independent Turkish and US patrols near the city. “I was there myself, the city is safe and Manbij City Council works inside the city,” Says Col. Ryan. The patrols are so far outside you’d need binoculars to see them. He points out that Turkey is a NATO and coalition ally and the coalition must keep their interests at heart. “There are frictions on the political and military side... we haven’t had any issues to this point.”
Recently, the 22nd independent patrol took place. The US is sticking to its guns in Manbij, hoping that the patrols don’t lead to Turkish calls to go into the city. But this is a political issue, above the coalition’s military role.
THROUGHOUT EASTERN Syria locals wonder how long the US will stay. A recent delegation from the East went to Damascus to discuss restoring some services there. Since the war on ISIS the area has been left to its own devices – but this means locals can’t study in Damascus, get passports or do basic things. Eastern Syria has the oil – and Damascus has the money.
“As you saw in the region, there are concerns of US longevity – we need to message that better. We are here to help stabilize them well after ISIS is taken out – and the coalition needs to show it is in the region,” says Col. Ryan. “Trust and accountability are important, but some of these are decisions Iraq and Syria need to make on their own... We are here as long as they invite to stay.”
The question is who is inviting the US and its allies to stay in the East? The Syrian government has opposed their presence. The US doesn’t treat its partners the SDF as a state government, but rather as a kind of autonomous local entity. At the same time, Russia has hosted talks with Iran and Turkey about the future of Syria, cutting the US out of those talks.
The US is also frequently scapegoated in Syrian-regime media and also in Russia. “There are so many players in the region,” says Col. Ryan. “You have Russia and Iran and Turkey involved, and Jordan and Turkey... You know we are not playing a big part in Syria, but the part we are playing shows we can stabilize and train forces in that region... Hopefully, the political situation will take over when military operations are complete.”
ANOTHER QUESTION is, what happens when these different interests collide after ISIS has been totally defeated? The coalition knows that the fight against ISIS helped to pave over some differences. Now those differences are increasing, including US tensions with Turkey, recent US policy changes to oppose Iran, and also difficult relations between Moscow and Washington. The situation also involved broader regional problems, including what happens across the border in Iraq.
The memories of the war on ISIS are still strong. On the fourth anniversary of the ISIS-led genocide against the Yazidi minority in Iraq, the locals recently conducted a mock burial of the United Nations, arguing that nothing had been done to defend them in August 2014 to stop the genocide. “It is tragic what happened,” says Col. Ryan. “No one had projected ISIS would go after them with [such] furor and disdain... I know they aren’t alone; ISIS targeted a lot of different groups, including Catholics.”
US Vice President Mike Pence recently spoke out about the need to help religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, including Yazidis, Christians and Shabaks, a group in Iraq. “More needs to be done to reunite the Yazidis with [their] families and repair broken infrastructure. We need the international community to come through on that.”
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