If someone told you the story of the U.S. involvement in eastern Syria in general terms, it might go like this.
In 2014, faced with an ongoing genocide by religious extremists against a religious minority, the United States decided to intervene in Iraq and then Syria to help stop the rise of the extremists who were bolstered by tens of thousands of foreign volunteers. The extremists had captured ample equipment and were a threat to several countries. They also terrorized many countries globally.
The United States located allies and local partners to help do most of the fighting on the ground, while it also assembled a 74-country coalition that mostly carried out airstrikes, and advised and assisted the locals. In Syria, these locals proved phenomenally successful and sacrificed thousands to push the extremists back. A U.S. ally that played little to no role in fighting the extremists and had a problematic role in allowing extremists to transit its country told America not to partner with these forces doing the fighting, claiming they were actually terrorists. The United States didn’t agree but understood the concern.
After four years of fighting side by side—and with the religious extremists almost defeated—the United States decided that the best course of action would be to hand over the entire area that its partners had liberated to several other countries, two of which are adversaries and one of which is ostensibly an ally that had vowed to attack the same group the United States was partnered with. The ally is working closely with adversaries now to take over the areas the United States and its local partners helped liberate.
The United States says it successfully used the local people to do all the fighting and dying, and now its best to go home. No need to take any responsibility for any investment afterwards, even in areas destroyed in the fighting. No need to care about refugees or IDPs. No need to help the former partners get back on their feet or give them anything—no need to even stop an invasion of the area just liberated. No need to do anything. No guarantees whatsoever, as if the whole four years never happened. Except for the local people it did happen; many thousands are dead. Genocide survivors can’t return home. Cities are in ruins.
Four years. That was interesting. OK. Bye.
No sense of magnitude
America is trying to tip-toe out of Syria like a thief in the night, hoping no one notices that it’s leaving and not acknowledging what it has done. No ceremonies, no handover, no discussion, nothing. It’s not how a major power is supposed to behave—to say “we are leaving” and walk away as extremists sharpen their knives to kill the people the United States was just working with to fight ISIS.
Never in my life have I seen such a shameful incident of a country just trying to hide its responsibility. If America had any pride and self-respect, it wouldn’t behave like this. The whole of the U.S. government from the Pentagon to the State Department has followed the president’s lead in just pretending like America was never in Syria. No “thank you” to those it worked with, no discussions about the future of Raqqa or Kobane or all those places the United States helped to liberate or to help keep ISIS from taking.
It’s as if four years never happened. America, ostensibly a democracy with a transparent system, has no transparency. No real hearings, no discussion, no consultations, no deliberations—nothing. Yes, there are newspaper articles bemoaning the policy change, saying Iran or Russia will benefit, and saying it is a shame to abandon friends.
But there is no sense of the magnitude of the whole thing. Some say, “Well, we care about the troops.” But then shouldn’t you care about what they fought for, what they sacrificed for, why they went in the first place? If you care … then why don’t you care about their legacy? Do you want the legacy to be just “we were never there,” as if it is an embarrassment? Every day that goes by that the United States can’t face its own policies in the mirror and or speak to the people in eastern Syria—and look them in the eye and can’t do anything but hide—is a shameful day.
They call those of us who oppose leaving “war mongers,” who “want more war.” I’m a peace monger. I want peace in Syria. But what I see America doing is fueling a new round of conflict against people who helped save the world from ISIS. I am for peace. The way the United States is doing this may result in war. Not peace. Peace doesn’t come from walking away from a half-burned building. What is happening in Syria now is the cynical attempt by one side to use the Syrian rebels to fight the YPG, two Syrian groups, all for the benefit of Turkey-Iran-Russia and the Syrian regime, which is looking on with happiness.
Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is writing a book on the Middle East after ISIS. His website is sethfrantzman.com and on Twitter @Sfrantzman.