Six years of work destroyed in six days: The collapse of eastern Syria

Turkish media, all supporting the invasion, would call the murder of Khalaf a “neutralization” of a “terrorist."

People sit on belongings at a back of a truck as they flee Ras al Ain town, Syria (photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)
People sit on belongings at a back of a truck as they flee Ras al Ain town, Syria
(photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)
The US decision on October 6 threw the future of eastern Syria up in the air, leaving whoever captures it the winner of America’s withdrawal.
The withdrawal comes after years of American involvement in helping the mostly Kurdish fighters defeat ISIS, and years in which the Kurds had fended for themselves amid the Syrian civil war, a Turkish invasion, brutal atrocities by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups, and a deal with Moscow and Damascus sealed the fate of eastern Syria. Some 200,000 people have fled their homes, a well-known Kurdish female politician, Hevrin Khalaf, her driver and several others were killed by fighters supposedly allied with Ankara on a road outside Tel Abyad in northern Syria, and uncertainty remains as thousands of ISIS supporters appear ready to flee their detention facilities.
The cynical decision by the US to leave parts of eastern Syria left many questions about what US President Donald Trump had decided in his conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The US said Turkey would move forward with a long-planned operation and US forces would not be in the area. Turkey had threatened for more than a year to attack the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria, which Turkey claims is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and is a terrorist organization. Turkey expanded its rhetoric in the spring of 2019 to demand a “safe zone” along the border. Then Turkey said it wanted a zone 32 km. deep into Syria, and to resettle millions of Arab refugees in Kurdish areas by building 200,000 homes in 140 new towns, thus changing the area’s demography.
The US military, which was left out of the loop of White House decision-making, tried to deal with Turkey’s threats and concerns, by establishing a “security mechanism” and getting the SDF to destroy forts and obstacles to Turkey’s upcoming attack. The US thought it was building trust, but Turkey was merely getting the US to do its work for it. The US military had been training 110,000 SDF fighters and had no idea that in Washington they were about to be thrown into chaos, watching those they trained be killed and ordered to leave.
The US decision also said “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters” in eastern Syria. Turkey hadn’t agreed to this, but Trump wanted to force European countries or others to deal with the ISIS detainees. Except for renditioning several of them, the US walked away as the ISIS fighters tried to flee their facilities. The SDF was told it was all alone, the skies would be opened to Turkish airstrikes, and the SDF was told to keep holding ISIS detainees while Turkey, a NATO member, attacked it. The US had trained the SDF, only to then allow it to be destroyed.
Turkey sought to invade parts of northeast Syria near Tel Abyad and other border cities such as Ras al-Ayn. But Turkey would do it in a unique way. While Turkish artillery and planes hammered the SDF, Turkey would inject the recently formed Syrian National Army into the border towns, using them as cannon fodder. The concept in Ankara was to get a plethora of Syrian Arab rebel groups to die fighting the PKK, so that hopefully they could cancel each other out while Turkey watched. The rebel groups chanted jihadist slogans and vowed that they would kill the “kuffar” (infidels), some of them even chanted the same slogans ISIS had chanted in 2014 when ISIS attacked Kobane.
Now, in 2019, it would be with Turkish support that extremists would be unleashed against US-trained SDF. Covered by air, these groups, such as Jaysh al-Sharyiqa, would be videoed carrying out atrocities. They would capture the MF 4 highway junction, trying to stop traffic reaching toward Kobane, Ayn Isa and other border areas. At checkpoints, the Turkish-backed groups would harass and murder civilians, including Khalaf, who ran the local Future Syria Party. Turkish media, all supporting the invasion, would call the murder of Khalaf a “neutralization” of a “terrorist.” At least some US officials saw the videos of the atrocities and thought they were likely war crimes.
From October 6 to 9, Turkey prepared its operation. Its forces were in place and the Syrian rebel groups, formed into the “National Army” just days before, were being moved to position. The SDF seemed hapless to oppose the attack. Until the last minute, they hoped Trump’s October 6 decision would be like his December 2018 decision to leave Syria. The EU expressed concern to Turkey on October 9 and the heads of NATO and the UN said that Turkey should show “restraint.” NATO and the UN both gave tacit approval for the attack. Turkey presented no evidence that the SDF was involved with “terrorism” or that it posed an “existential threat,” but Ankara mobilized supporters to argue that the US had mistakenly allied with the YPG in 2015, which formed part of the SDF, and the US had “used terrorists to fight terrorists.” US officials who helped create and train the SDF saw it differently, arguing that the US had sought to work with other Syrian rebel groups but they had failed.
With the airspace open, the green light was given to Turkey to begin the operation on October 9. US Special Forces in eastern Syria briefly tweeted what seemed like support for the SDF. Others would later say they felt ashamed at the attack on their SDF partners. But they had no say. Turkey had coordinated its offensive with Russia, even though the SDF was already putting out feelers to Damascus and Moscow that it might need to negotiate. Putin had returned from a vacation to the Siberian taiga for his birthday. He monitored the developments closely.
Further to the east of Syria in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region, former president Masoud Barzani and the KRG President Nechirvan Barzani both expressed concern, asking the US to stop the ensuing chaos. Washington wasn’t listening.
As Turkish bombs began to fall, Kurds in Kobane, the city that had resisted ISIS in 2014, fled toward the US base, demanding support and protection. There would be no protection. Instead, Turkey shelled areas near the base, causing concern for US forces. In Washington, US Senator Lindsey Graham was saying that the US would need to sanction Turkey over its attack on America’s Kurdish allies. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US had not given Ankara a “green light” to attack.
In response to criticism, Erdogan warned Europe to remain silent or Turkey would send millions of refugees to Europe in a replay of 2015. European leaders took it in stride. Germany’s leader would eventually critique the operation and France would end arms shipments. Harsher condemnation came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Israel could extend humanitarian aid. Trump disagreed, arguing that the US had to leave or force war with Turkey. He wanted the US out of the “endless wars.” He argued that Kurds and Turks were ancient enemies, and that Kurds had not helped the US in the World War II. By October 11, more than 70,000 people had fled their homes in eastern Syria. Within days, that number swelled to 150,000.
The SDF suffered withering attacks from October 9 to 12, in which Turkey said around 500 “terrorists” were killed in more than 200 airstrikes. SDF Gen. Mazloum Kobani told the Americans that they had abandoned his fighters to be slaughtered. He was angry with William Roebuck, the deputy US envoy for the anti-ISIS campaign. On October 12, he told the Americans that if they couldn’t protect his people, then the SDF would have to speak to Moscow and Damascus. “Either you stop this bombing or move aside,” he said. He would not allow another Afrin, where Kurds were ethnically cleansed from their peaceful villages in northwest Syria in 2018 by a similar Turkish operation.
The Americans, who knew that Turkey had impunity to bomb eastern Syria, were coy, telling Mazloum to wait. Later, on the evening of October 12, videos emerged of Turkish-backed rebels executing Kurdish prisoners. It was now clear to the SDF leadership that this is what awaited them: their families would be bombed and driven from their homes and they would be killed, either in battle or executed after. Civilian politicians would also be hunted down and murdered, like Khalaf. Their executions would be filmed, like ISIS had done, with jihadists chanting religious slogans and kicking and beheading Kurdish bodies.
Understanding that the US had abandoned them to be ethnically cleansed and murdered, the Kurdish leadership knew they had to find a way to stop the attacks via Damascus. A video of a Kurdish woman cradling her dead child shocked locals as they saw more evidence of what was in store. After noon on October 13, after just four days of fighting, the Syrian regime media announced its forces would move to oppose the invasion. But it would take hours for Syrian regime vehicles, some from Hasakah and Qamishli, where regime elements had small bases, to do much. Meanwhile, almost 1,000 ISIS detainees fled a camp near Ayn Issa. US vehicles fled Kobane but remained in Manbij across the Euphrates River. American soldiers indicated they feared the deteriorating situation and being isolated. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper indicated the US was withdrawing. Orders for the soldiers on the ground were unclear.
They had been unclear the whole time as the US opened the airspace to Turkey but remained in some areas. Clearly the US had agreed to Turkey’s attack in the area of the “security mechanism” near Tel Abyad. But it was not clear what US forces knew in other areas.
Abroad, there were protests against the attack on Kurdish areas, such as Rojava. But fears for the fall of Rojava were too late. It was already falling. Chris Scurfield, whose son had fought and died alongside the YPG against ISIS, wrote on Twitter how tragic it all had ended. “What a waste of time five years, thousands of lives, including my son, for what?” Former CIA head David Petraeus was also shocked and “deeply concerned” about the American withdrawal.
A local Kurdish official named Ismet Sheikh explained the logic that drove his people to sign a deal with Damascus. They had asked the UN to stop the attack, and appealed to the Arab League, but there was no solution. To save people, they reached an agreement, he said.
By 10 p.m. of October 13, there were mixed celebrations in Hasaka and Qamishli to the idea that the Syrian regime would return and stop the bloodshed. The Internet was cut in Qamishli and journalists began to pack their bags. They would now be hunted by the Syrian regime if they stayed, they feared. They headed for the bridge that connected the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to Syria. Mazloum was circumspect: “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life.”
Amid rumors that Russia would impose a no-fly zone, images circulated of Syrian forces moving toward Manbij, Tabqa, Tel Tamer and other areas. The Syrian regime was returning after seven years. The whole area that the YPG and SDF had helped build for six years had been destroyed in six days, at the whim of the American president. The 110,000 SDF fighters trained would likely be incorporated into the Syrian regime forces, bolstering Bashar Assad’s manpower. Turkey’s invasion had accelerated the regime’s success.
Retired US Marine general John Allen spared no words of outrage: “There is blood on Trump’s hands for abandoning our Kurdish allies.”