US forces near Manbij in 2017. Delil Souleiman/AFP.
AMMAN: US-backed factions and displaced Syrians in eastern Syria expressed “surprise” on Thursday over a shock decision announced by US President Donald Trump to withdraw American forces from the country in one month’s time, leaving the future of eastern Syria hanging in an uncertain balance.
President Trump announced the total military withdrawal on Wednesday, with Pentagon officials saying the pullout would take place within 30 days.
The decision, widely derided by diplomats as well as US officials as misguided and irresponsible, comes despite the fact that US forces are currently engaged in an unfinished battle to seize remaining Islamic State (IS) territory in eastern Syria.
Washington’s allies, as well as US officials themselves, appeared blindsided by the decision.
A spokesperson for the US-led coalition said they could not provide details on the upcoming withdrawal. A UN official in Damascus said on Thursday the international body was “still assessing” the situation.
Since 2014, the US military has led an international coalition to remove IS from much of eastern Syria, including the hardline Islamist group’s formerly self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa.
Waged over the course of three years, the campaign saw mostly Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take control of formerly IS-held towns and cities through a series of gruelling ground offensives with backing from US-led coalition airstrikes.
The SDF would become the US-led coalition’s main partner and allied fighting force on the ground against IS.
‘We paid the price with blood’
In the wake of President Trump’s shock announcement Wednesday, some who had previously fought in the battles said they felt deeply betrayed by the decision to withdraw US forces.
“We are surprised by the decision,” one SDF fighter in Raqqa, who took part in the anti-IS campaign, told Syria Direct. The fighter spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“I feel that the Americans are laughing at us, that this is a betrayal,” he added, though admitted he had not yet seen any changes on the ground as of Thursday morning.
Sardar Mahmoud, a media coordinator for the SDF in Raqqa, echoed the fighter’s reaction. “If America withdraws, it’ll prove what everyone says about [the US]: that it’s a country that abandons its allies.”
People in northeastern Syria hold up photos of deceased SDF fighters on Thursday in protest of Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops. Photo courtesy of Hoşeng Hesen.
“I wish we hadn’t liberated Raqqa, Tabqa and Deir e-Zor [from IS],” Mahmoud added. “We paid the price [of those battles] with the blood of all those who died or were injured.”
“I don’t know how we’ll be able to look their families in the eye.”
An official statement released Thursday by the SDF said Trump’s decision to withdraw would “negatively affect the campaign against terrorism,” adding the group’s military offensive against IS was not yet over.
President Trump has long called for US forces to leave Syria, although in September his administration announced an about-turn—stating that its troops would remain in Syria as long as Iranian-backed militias maintained a presence in the country.
Wednesday’s decision came as another dramatic turn from that supposed policy, as Iranian-backed forces remain entrenched throughout the country.
“Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving…because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us [sic],” Trump wrote in a Twitter post Thursday morning, despite having written in an earlier post the previous day that US forces “have defeated” IS in Syria.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders claimed that the Trump administration was transitioning to the “next phase of this [anti-IS] campaign” after the US had “defeated the territorial caliphate,” a reference to IS’s self-proclaimed quasi-state in Syria and Iraq, in a statement Wednesday.
But the decision garnered heavy criticism since its announcement on Wednesday, with a number of US officials and conservative politicians deriding the coming withdrawal of troops.
“The fact that he has decided to create a mayhem-inducing policy decision without first socializing that decision with the very Department of Defense and US forces that would be tasked with the withdrawal is quite galling,” Washington DC-based analyst Nicholas Heras told Syria Direct via telephone on Thursday.
Questions over fate of al-Tanf, Rukban camp
The planned troop withdrawal appears to gloss over details about the future of al-Tanf, a holdout coalition military base within a 55-kilometer demilitarized zone in southeastern Syria’s desert that was previously sketched out by Russia and the US.
There, US-led coalition troops, as well as fighters from the coalition-backed Maghawir a-Thawra (MaT) rebel faction, maintain a presence that they maintain is key to combating IS, despite its remote location in a corner of Syria otherwise populated by pro-government militias.
It remained unclear on Thursday whether US withdrawal from Syria would include abandoning the al-Tanf base as well.
An MaT official told Syria Direct on Thursday he was still “waiting for the full details and timeline” of the US decision, and that his group had yet to meet officially with US representatives to discuss the pullout.
Either way, a US pullout from al-Tanf would constitute “a massive Christmas gift” for Russian-backed forces in the area, Heras said.
“Russia has always been angry and uneasy with the continued US presence in the Tanf zone.”
Also situated within the 55-km zone around al-Tanf is Rukban camp, where some 50,000 displaced Syrians without adequate shelter, food and medicine are essentially trapped in place.
Displaced Syrians in Rukban live in a no-man’s-land between the Syrian and Jordanian borders known as the “berm.” Returning to their homes is simply not an option for many, as they fear crossing back into government-held territory immediately outside the 55-km zone.
Camp resident Omar al-Homsi said on Thursday that he was worried about what could happen to him if US troops indeed pull out of al-Tanf, as he fears surrounding pro-government militias.
“I’ve been wanted for mandatory military service since 2013,” al-Homsi told Syria Direct by phone. “I could maybe use a smuggling route to get out [of Rukban].”
“But if I can’t do that, then God help me.”
With additional reporting by Ammar Hamou.