The United States supported the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, in its campaign to vanquish ISIS from the region for six dangerous years. Then, in advance of Turkish forces crossing into Syria in fall 2019, President Donald Trump ordered a withdrawal of American troops, leaving the SDF, and the surrounding area, vulnerable.
Last winter, Pulitzer Center grantee Luke Mogelson spent a month in Raqqa, Syria, to meet individuals facing the aftermath of the decision. In this Talks @ Pulitzer, Mogelson delves into the findings of his project, "Abandoned," and considers ways to reestablish the balance of the region.
The following is an edited transcript of the Question & Answer segment of the webinar, moderated by Ann Peters, the Center's university and community outreach director. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length.
Ann Peters: What were your expectations prior to your arrival in Syria?
Luke Mogelson: Well, I had obviously followed the Turkish incursion in October, and by the time I arrived there the situation had kind of stabilized. There were fixed front lines and areas of control among the various parties and factions, but it was extremely messy. You had Russians, and Americans, and SDF, and Turks, Turkish-backed militias, Arab militias, the regime forces; all mixed up in a relatively small geographical area. So I knew it was extremely complicated but I had a difficult time visualizing what that actually looked like and how that kind of political reality looked on the ground.
AP: In your New Yorker article, you were talking about a SDF commander named Mazloum and the question of when he was informed that the US would be withdrawing after such a long relationship that he had had with them. Could you talk a little bit about that?
LM: That's a really important point, and it's actually still a debatable question: To what extent were the Kurds and the SDF led to believe that they could depend on U.S. support in the event of a Turkish incursion? Because it's not like this was a big surprise. I mean, for years the Turks had been threatening to invade and they had already mounted cross-border operations against the SDF. Erdogan's rhetoric had been growing progressively more belligerent as the SDF had grown because they had essentially started as this very small militia that at one point looked like it was on the verge of being completely annihilated by ISIS when they were surrounded in Kobani. From there they had grown to a multi-ethnic force of around a hundred thousand fighters and that was largely thanks to the support that the U.S. had provided them as long as they were fighting ISIS and defeating ISIS all across northern and eastern Syria. So from the Turks' perspective, this was an alarming development. Mainly because the SDF grew out of the PKK, which started out as a Turkish separatist movement and eventually renounced its separatist ambitions in favor of a more complicated, nuanced desire for autonomy—what they call political economy.
In any case, it had been a decades-long insurgency that the PKK had been waging against the Turkish government. There had been a brief ceasefire that fell apart in 2015. So the Turks would say that the SDF is just a Syrian branch of the PKK. The SDF would say that that's not the case, that they're independent of the PKK. The truth is likely somewhere in between the two—it's undeniable that the two organizations are connected and that the PKK exercises influence throughout the hierarchy of the SDF. So our alliance with the SDF against ISIS in Syria was always complicated and always somewhat contradictory as a U.S. policy because of our concurrent alliance with NATO, who viewed the SDF essentially as a terrorist group. We kind of just ignored that contradiction and that problem because the SDF was so effective at fighting ISIS in Syria and because we did not have another alternative.
Both the CIA and the Pentagon had attempted to create Arab opposition forces in Syria and they were both abysmal failures, so Mazloum felt like—and many Kurds felt like—they had earned a degree of fidelity from the U.S. vis a vis Turkey because of their sacrifices. A lot of their bloodiest and most costly battles were south of their territory, outside of what they called Rojava, their Kurdish homeland in northern Syria. Raqqa is not a Kurdish area, but they had gone there when we asked them to and they had wiped ISIS off the map. They say that they were led to believe—even explicitly told—that the U.S. would not allow Turkey to attack them. The U.S. vigorously denies this and they say that the U.S. ambassador has testified to Congress that no such guarantee was ever made. Trump has said repeatedly that no such guarantee was ever made. We don't know.
AP: Now that the U.S. has withdrawn, could you give an update on the situation of the alliances?
LM: After the U.S. withdrew, Mazloum, who is the commanding general of the SDF, reached out to the Assad regime and its principal patron Russia to make a deal—they would replace the U.S. as a kind of bulwark against Turkey. Putin subsequently invited Erdogan to Sochi, where they worked out a ceasefire that essentially locked in place the territory that the Turks had already occupied and halted their advance there. Erdogan actually had a much more ambitious plan originally and wanted to capture a vaster area than he ended up with. Then you had a very odd situation with Russian and regime forces co-located with Kurdish forces along a front line which were Turkish forces. A lot of these Russians that came in to fill the void that the Americans left ended up moving into American bases, so there were Russian flags flying from American combat outposts.
So this put Raqqa in a very precarious situation, because Raqqa is anti-regime and when Mazloum invited the Russians in the regime to support the SDF against Turkey, that left Raqqa vulnerable to the regime. And the regime wants—it has made no secret—it wants very much to reclaim control of Raqqa, and so this was kind of a secondary effect of the U.S. withdrawal that hasn't really been discussed too much because America was the main force that expelled ISIS from the city and in doing we completely destroyed the city—razed it to the ground with airstrikes and artillery and mortars. I've never seen a place so thoroughly annihilated physically by airpower and I've covered Aleppo and Mosul and Sinjar and other places. So when we pulled out we essentially—in addition to leaving the Kurds in a vulnerable situation—we also left Raqqa in an extremely vulnerable situation after having destroyed it.
AP: Is there a realistic chance that Raqqa will receive the aid it needs to be reconstructed?
LM: As long as Assad remains in power, no. And as long as there's a possibility that the regime will ultimately recapture Raqqa, no. Donor countries do not want to be paying for new schools, new facilities, new infrastructure that's ultimately going to benefit the regime. The really tragic part of that is that we—in the withdrawing and disengaging from Syria—have increased the likelihood of that happening. A development officer gave me an example of how this policy plays out in practical terms, and that is if a school was minimally damaged by a U.S. airstrike during the Battle of Raqqa and just needed some windows replaced and a new paint job, we can fund that. We would, according to a standing policy. But if it was destroyed, if it was flattened, if it requires load-bearing walls to be erected, we won't pay for that as a matter of policy. And in Raqqa, the vast majority of buildings are in the latter category. So, you have a city two years after the battle in which it was destroyed mostly by American arms that still has no rebuilding going on. That's not to say that nothing's happened—people have been working there—but in terms of rebuilding, there's nothing and there won't be anything as long as Assad remains in power.
AP: If Rojava is an experiment in grassroots democracy, do you think it can survive? What are your thoughts on that after your conversations with folks on the ground?
LM: I wouldn't really call it an experiment in grassroots democracy. I don't think it's very democratic—there's essentially one political party and not a lot of elections—but it is an experiment. Abdullah Öcalan would call it democratic confederalism, which is pluralistic and inclusive compared to the rest of Syria. Whether that experiment can survive is an open question, but one thing that surprised me there was how resilient the autonomous administration has turned out to be under extreme and diverse pressures. I think that the Turks kind of anticipated that they would invade and the whole system would collapse, but that's not what happened. The bureaucracy—which is a sprawling, very extensive, very complex bureaucracy—remained intact, even if they had to move their headquarters, and so did the SDF. I think this alliance of non-Kurdish forces that Mazloum had cobbled together over the years also stayed intact and has withstood efforts by the regime to undermine it. The regime has tried to get various Arab tribes—by bribery and by offering other incentives—to leave the SDF and it really hasn't succeeded, the forces have held together and the bureaucracy has held together. Whether it will be able to continue to do so is hard to say.
AP: Is the U.S. protecting Syrian oil fields? If true, where? Is the SDF involved or getting any revenues?
LM: The answer would be a qualified yes to both of those questions. The first is whether or not U.S. troops are protecting the oil fields: They are in a place called Rumilan and also in Deir ez-Zor. U.S. forces are around oil fields and protecting them. Personally, I don't think that's the principal reason why they're in either Deir ez-Zor or Jazeera and I go into that in the piece. Essentially, I think when Trump ordered a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces when the Turks originally invaded, this really alarmed U.S. commanders and diplomats who were partnering with the Kurds there and they clearly did not agree with that decision and they wanted to keep troops there for a variety of reasons that have little to do with oil.
I think that the oil was used as a way to convince Trump to reverse his policy–which he did, he ended up sending back around 500 troops who are still there and he always says that he made that decision for the oil, to protect the oil. The troops are around oil fields but they're also doing other things which I think are the real priorities of the U.S. military. Fighting ISIS–because there are still ISIS sleeper cells– keeping Iran at bay, and protecting the border crossing that connects northern Syria to northern Iraq.
Are the SDF earning revenue from the oil? Yes, a lot. And surprisingly, a lot of that revenue comes from the regime. The Kurds do not have refineries so they extract crude, they ship it in trucks to Damascus or to regime territories, and then they buy back refined diesel and petroleum from the regime. So it's this kind of cycle in which both sides earn money and get fuel.