In America's hidden war in Syria, troops face peril on many fronts
By LIZ SLY | The Washington Post | Published: December 14, 2018
RAQQA, Syria — This ruined, fearful city was once the Islamic State's capital, the showcase of its caliphate and a magnet for foreign fighters from around the globe.
Now it lies at the heart of the United States' newest commitment to a Middle East war.
The commitment is small, a few thousand troops who were first sent to Syria three years ago to help the Syrian Kurds fight the Islamic State. President Donald Trump indicated in March that the troops would be brought home once the battle is won, and the latest military push to eject the group from its final pocket of territory recently got underway.
In September, however, the administration switched course, saying the troops will stay in Syria pending an overall settlement to the Syrian war and with a new mission: to act as a bulwark against Iran's expanding influence.
That decision puts U.S. troops in overall control, perhaps indefinitely, of an area comprising nearly a third of Syria, a vast expanse of mostly desert terrain roughly the size of Louisiana.
The Pentagon does not say how many troops are there. Officially, they number 503, but earlier this year an official let slip that the true number may be closer to 4,000. Most are Special Operations forces, and their footprint is light. Their vehicles and convoys rumble by from time to time along the empty desert roads, but it is rare to see U.S. soldiers in towns and cities.
The new mission raises new questions, about the role they will play and whether their presence will risk becoming a magnet for regional conflict and insurgency.
The area is surrounded by powers hostile both to the U.S. presence and the aspirations of the Kurds, who are governing the majority-Arab area in pursuit of a leftist ideology formulated by an imprisoned Turkish Kurdish leader. Signs that the Islamic State is starting to regroup and rumblings of discontent within the Arab community point to the threat of an insurgency.
Without the presence of U.S. troops, these dangers would almost certainly ignite a new war right away, said Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with the Self-Administration of North and East Syria, as the self-styled government of the area is called.
"They have to stay. If they leave and there isn't a solution for Syria, it will be catastrophic," she said.
But staying also heralds risk, and already the challenges are starting to mount.
A Turkish threat to invade the area last month forced the United States to scramble patrols along the border with Turkey, which has massed troops and tanks along the frontier. Turkey regards the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party inside Turkey, as a terrorist organization and fears the consequences for its own security if the group consolidates power in Syria.
Syrian government troops and Iranian proxy fighters are to the south and west. They have threatened to take the area back by force, in pursuit of President Bashar Assad's pledge to bring all of Syria under government control. The government and Iran have been cultivating ties with local tribes, and the U.S. announcement of its intent to counter the Iranian presence in Syria may, in response, further encourage such ties.
Away from the front lines, the calm that followed the ejection of the Islamic State from Raqqa and the surrounding territory is starting to fray. A series of mysterious bombings and assassinations in some of the areas retaken from the militants up to three years ago has set nerves on edge. Most of the attacks are claimed by the Islamic State, and a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Sean Ryan, said there is no reason to believe the Islamic State is not responsible. "We know they're regrouping in those areas," he said.
But there are widespread suspicions that any one of the regional powers opposed to the U.S. presence and the Kurds' pursuit of self-governance may be seeking to destabilize the area, finding allies among disgruntled Arabs uncomfortable with the prospect of being governed long term by the Kurds.
The Kurdish forces have sought to include Arabs in their self-governance experiment but retain dominance over its structures at every level, Arabs complain.
This is a part of Syria where tribal loyalties often trump politics, and the tribes are being courted by all the regional players with an interest in ultimately controlling the area, according to Sheikh Humaidi al-Shammar, the head of the influential Shammar tribe.
At Shammar's outsize mansion, which rises improbably from the empty desert near the Iraqi border, dozens of tribal leaders gathered one recent Friday for his customary weekly divan, sweeping into his cavernous reception room dressed in gold-trimmed robes and flanked by pistol-wielding guards.
The guests ranged, Shammar confided, from sheikhs affiliated with the Assad regime and his ruling Baath Party to representatives of the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army rebels and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces — a spectrum of those competing for control in northeastern Syria.
Shammar has allied his tribe with the United States and the Kurds, and he has contributed fighters from his small Sanadid militia to battles against the Islamic State. But, he said, he has many concerns: namely, that the U.S. talk of countering Iran will suck the region into a new conflict and that the area's Arabs will be cut out of any deal that is eventually reached with the Kurds.
"Everything is uncertain. We are part of a global game now, and it is out of our hands," he said.
His son Bandar, who leads the Shammar militia, said the tribe supports some form of new arrangement for the Kurds in Syria "because they are our brothers and they sacrificed a lot," he said.
"The main concern of the Arab population is that one ethnicity, the Kurds, is going to build a state for Kurds and impose their authority on the others," he said. "The coalition created the SDF to be multiethnic, but really people see it is not like this. It is a solo actor which authorizes everything and controls everything."
Kurdish leaders say they are working hard to convince the Arab community that their plan for governing will include it. Education sessions are being held in Arab areas to try to bring Arabs around to the views of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Turkish Kurdish leader who inspired the YPG's ideology, said Saleh Muslim, a senior official with the Democratic Union Party, the political wing of the YPG.
"We are very sincere about living together," he said. "It's a matter of time. Maybe we need three or four years to make it stable."
Whether the Kurds have three or four years is unclear. U.S. officials hope the American presence will bring leverage in negotiations over an eventual settlement to end the Syrian war, with the aim of securing some form of autonomy for their Kurdish allies as well as rolling back Iranian influence.
But there is no such settlement in sight, and there may not be one. Assad has prevailed against the rebellion elsewhere in Syria and has shown no inclination to make concessions. The expectation among many residents, Kurds and Arabs alike, is that the government will eventually restore its authority over the area.
After Trump said the troops would soon be withdrawn, many here began planning for that eventuality, including the Kurds, who launched talks with Damascus for a direct, bilateral settlement. The talks went nowhere, and now the Americans are staying — but Kurdish officials say they are keeping open channels of communication in case Trump changes his mind again.
"Everything is very complicated and no one knows which way to turn. We don't know who is against whom and who is with whom," said Amjad Othman, an official with the SDF.
All the challenges and complexities of northeastern Syria seemed to be concentrated in the small, strategic town of Manbij. Located beside the Euphrates River, it was liberated from the Islamic State by Kurdish forces over three years ago. Now, to the north, lies territory controlled by Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army allies, and to the south by the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran.
In the middle are the Americans. It is one of the few places where the U.S. military has a conspicuous presence. There are three small U.S. bases in and around the town, supporting an American effort to keep apart Turkey and the Kurdish-affiliated Manbij Military Council, according to officials with the council. So far, diplomacy has worked to tamp down the tensions, and the U.S. and Turkish militaries recently began conducting joint patrols along the front line.
But attacks, carried out by assassins riding motorcycles and planting roadside bombs, are occurring with increasing frequency behind the front lines. Local officials believe groups affiliated with the Syrian government and Iran are behind some of these, according to Mohammed Mustafa Ali, who goes by the name Abu Adil and is the head of the Manbij Military Council. "We are surrounded by enemies, and they all want to come here," he said.
Frustrations are building, meanwhile, with the acute lack of funding for reconstruction, impeding the effort to win hearts and minds in Arab non-Kurdish areas, Kurdish officials say. Earlier this year, Trump cut the $200 million that had been earmarked for essential repairs to the worst damaged areas. Though that sum has been replaced by donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it is a fraction of the billions of dollars required.
It is in Raqqa, the biggest city in the part of Syria where U.S. troops are based, that the frustration is most keenly felt. The city was devastated by the U.S.-led airstrikes that accompanied the SDF's four-month offensive to drive out the Islamic State, and a year later the city is still in ruins.
Signs of life are returning, with shops and markets reopening in some neighborhoods. About half the population has returned, squeezing into the least damaged buildings, sometimes living without walls and windows. Most roads have been cleared of piles of rubble that were left by the bombardments, but blocks on end are wrecked and uninhabitable. The water was restored in September, but there is still no electricity.
Without more financial support, there is a risk that Raqqa will "devolve into the same vulnerability ISIS found when it first arrived, a 'fractured city ripe for extremist takeover and exploitation,' " a report by the Pentagon's inspector general said last month, quoting a State Department official.
The anger on the streets is palpable. Some residents are openly hostile to foreign visitors, which is rare in other towns and cities freed from Islamic State control in Syria and Iraq. Even those who support the presence of the U.S. military and the SDF say they are resentful that the United States and its partners in the anti-ISIS coalition that bombed the city aren't helping to rebuild.
And many appear not to support their new rulers.
"We don't want the Americans. It's occupation," said one man, a tailor, who didn't want to give his name because he feared the consequences of speaking his mind. "I don't know why they had to use such a huge number of weapons and destroy the city. Yes, ISIS was here, but we paid the price. They have a responsibility."
He spoke wistfully of life under the Islamic State, when, he said, the streets were safe. His business was good because foreign fighters flocked to him to get themselves decked out in the Afghan-style outfits of baggy pants and tunics that were favored by the Islamic State. Now the city is half empty and customers are few.
Everyone says the streets are not safe now. Recent months have seen an uptick in assassinations and kidnappings, mostly targeting members of the security forces or people who work with the local council. But some critics of the authorities have been gunned down, too, and at night there are abductions and robberies.
And there is graffiti, often appearing overnight, a sinister reminder that the Islamic State is trying to stage a comeback.
"Remaining in spite of you," said the writing scrawled in black paint on the collapsed wall of a destroyed building on one recent morning, a reference to the Islamic State's slogan, "Remaining and Expanding."
The paint was fresh.
Used clothes are sold at a street stand in Raqqa, Syria, where signs of life have returned in some neighborhoods, on Oct. 14, 2018.
ALICE MARTINS/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST