By Jonathan Meilaender
On October 7th, President Trump ordered an immediate withdrawal of all US troops from Syria. ISIS has been defeated, he said. Turkey can sort out the rest.
Probably you don’t care. Nor do I blame you – hardly anyone hears much about Syria these days, now that the threat of ISIS has (mostly) subsided. And so I am not going to sit here and simply tell you to care – that would be ridiculous. Instead, I am going to tell you a story – the story of what happened in Syria, of why the Islamic State is gone.
It is a story that sometimes sounds like a fairytale or like ancient history, but is not. It is a story of good and evil, of freedom and literal slavery, of peace – or more war.
In late 2014, the Islamic State went from a small al-Qaeda splinter groups to a dangerous threat in spectacular fashion.
ISIS fighters swept out of Syria into Mosul, one of the country’s largest cities. The Iraqi army fled, leaving behind massive amounts of military equipment, with much of it made in America.
Suddenly, ISIS had not merely an unmatched reputation for brutality, but tanks, heavy weapons, and artillery.
When Iraqi forces tried to fight back west of Baghdad, they were crushed. A month later, in Syria, the Islamic State attacked both the Syrian government (headed by dictator Bashar al-Assad) and rebel forces, taking the major city of Raqqa and numerous military bases.
Then they transitioned back to Iraq with lightning speed, striking at Iraqi Kurdistan. In particular, they were aiming for a small city in the northwest: Sinjar, which is the spiritual home of the Yazidi people and an ancient religious group descended from pre-Christian Zoroastrianism.
For ISIS, Yazidis were devil-worshipers. The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga defending Sinjar, famous for their resistance to Saddam Hussein decades earlier, were no match for the terrorists. They dropped their weapons and fled.
ISIS took the town, killed every man they could find (mass graves are still being found), and sold the women and girls into sexual slavery. The survivors fled to Mount Sinjar, a tall mountain with an ancient Yazidi sanctuary overlooking the city. There, without food or water, they were besieged by ISIS.
At this point, the American government decided to intervene, dropping supplies to the Yazidis and conducting a handful of airstrikes on US positions. A few days later, Kurdish fighters opened a corridor to the survivors and allowed them to escape the mountain.
But these fighters were, for the most part, not the famous Peshmerga who had fled a few days earlier. They were members of the YPG, a small, unknown group that controlled some Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. They had no heavy weapons, no body armor, no helmets – usually nothing but sneakers on their feet. They crossed into Iraq not because anyone asked or because they stood to gain anything, but merely to save the Yazidis. Unlike everyone else, this small militia ran toward the danger instead of turning their backs.
ISIS was not by any means defeated, rather merely frustrated in their desire to kill every Yazidi instead of some. So they turned their sights on Northern Syria next, and the Kurdish fighters who had dared to resist them.
Thousands of troops, armed with artillery and American-made Abrams tanks taken from the Iraqi army, marched on the small border town of Kobani, held by perhaps a thousand men – and a few hundred women – of the YPG (alongside Arab allies). They crushed all resistance in the countryside and drove into the outskirts of the city. The YPG could easily have fled across the border to Turkey, but unlike everyone else, they did not. Instead, against all odds, they held out.
Finally, US airstrikes arrived to help them, and together, America and the Kurds slowly began to drive ISIS back. Three months later, the Islamic State had lost thousands of men, including many battle-hardened fighters, and many of their tanks and heavy weapons.
There are all kinds of stories from this battle demonstrating the courage and determination of the defenders. Arin Mirkan, a young female fighter, finding herself surrounded and cut off by Islamic State fighters, used her last grenade to take them with her rather than risk rape and execution.
This battle, though the beginning of the end for ISIS, was only the beginning of a long and bloody war for the YPG. With continued American support, they drove ISIS out of all its major strongholds in Syria, including Raqqa, the “capital” of the terror group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
But how they did it was much more impressive. Unlike every other group in Syria, the YPG managed to fight a “clean” war – they did not loot, they did not kill civilians, they did not even execute ISIS prisoners. Along the way, they began to gather non-Kurdish allies. At American urging, they rebranded as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF soon included Arab, Christian, and Turkmen homes, as well as numerous “military councils” – local militias set up to defend their own homes. Today, a large portion of the SDF is non-Kurdish.
More importantly, they established an effective democratic administration in the areas they conquered. The SDF proposed a federal system as a solution to Syria’s ethnic and religious divisions. Officially known as “democratic confederalism,” this bottom-up political system allowed locals control over their own politics. It also guaranteed religious freedom, freedom of speech, and, crucially, equal rights for women – in stark contrast to ISIS, who beat women for failing to cover their hands in public.
Every governing body had two co-chairs: one man and one woman. Many upper-level commanders in the SDF were female. The political administration did not always live up to its ideals, but it was much, much better than anything else in Syria.
And now, for several years, the weary citizens of northeastern Syria finally experienced peace.
They began to rebuild their ruined cities and restore order to a war-torn region. Finally, there was a glimmer of hope for life after ISIS.
But while the world cheered – happy that someone else was doing the fighting and dying to conquer the Islamic State – one country looked on in disapproval: Turkey. This disapproval had some basis in fact. The YPG was a branch or successor of the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group that fought the Turkish state in a long and bloody conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
But the PKK, though certainly a terror organization for a time, has long since ceased to attack civilians (and today does very little). Indeed, while the YPG migrated over to Syria and began forming a secular, democratic government, the Turkish state under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved in an ever more Islamist and authoritarian direction. The SDF at present poses no threat to Turkey whatsoever, except in an ideological sense – and that’s a good thing.
In order to demonstrate their non-interest in any belligerence, the SDF spent the last few months negotiating, at our urging, a security agreement to appease Turkish fears. The Kurds and their allies agreed to destroy fortifications along the Turkish border, allow Turkish troops to patrol alongside the American forces already stationed in northeastern Syria, and withdraw heavy weapons from the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad.
On Oct. 7, 2019, President Trump inexplicably withdrew American forces as soon as these measures were completed, leaving the SDF helpless. The Turkish Army and affiliated Syrian Islamist groups attacked immediately, and exactly where you might expect – in Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad. Even American soldiers stationed in Syria were shocked at this blatant betrayal.
One marine, who served alongside the SDF in Syria, told Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligmann, “I feel physically ill with worry and concern and deeply ashamed that my own country would permit this fate to befall our close allies who did all our fighting for us, when we had the power to prevent it.” Foreign ISIS prisoners, held in prison camps by the SDF because no one else would take them back, revolted and fled amidst the fighting.
Two weeks later, the autonomous democracy of northeastern Syria, a little tiny “American Dream” in the midst of chaos, is no more. Turkey has lost in Ras al-Ayn for now, but everyone knows the defeat will not last. In the face of insurmountable odds, the SDF has agreed to hand over control of the region to murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. Where Americans once fought to preserve freedom, Syrian thugs now fight Erdogan’s minions to decide who shall tyrannize the Kurdish people.
After the time of this writing, on Oct. 17, Trump, Erdogan, and representatives of the SDF claimed to have reached a deal on a ceasefire. However, the language of the agreement is unclear as to when the deal will begin or what area is included; as of Oct. 18, fighting continues. In addition, the terms of the deal amount to a near-complete acceptance of Turkish demands the SDF to give up heavy weapons and retreat from the conflict zone. Syrian government control over the SDF is assumed. The situation described in this article is materially unchanged.
Jonathan Meilaender is a junior political science major and senior writer for The Review. He has closely followed the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS since 2013 and plans to pursue graduate studies in international relations.