This winter, Luke Mogelson spent a month in northern and eastern Syria, reporting on the fallout of U.S. disengagement from the country. In October, when Turkey invaded Northern Syria, it seized almost a thousand square miles of territory that had previously been controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F. For six years, the U.S. military had supported the S.D.F. in its campaign to vanquish ISIS from the region, but, when Turkey attacked, President Donald Trump ordered a complete and immediate withdrawal of American troops from Syria. This obliged the S.D.F. to negotiate an accord with the Syrian regime and its patron, Russia, upending the strategic balance in the country.
This project recounts the vicissitudes of the history of S.D.F. through the perspective of its founder and commander, General Mazloum, whom Mogelson met and interviewed in Syria this February. It also explores some of the lesser-known consequences of U.S. disengagement from Syria, which actually began long before the October withdrawal. Nowhere are these consequences more striking than in the city of Raqqa, which was utterly decimated by American airstrikes in 2017. Although as many as one hundred thousand people have since returned to Raqqa, almost no substantive reconstruction has taken place there, and it remains a city of ruins. The U.S. withdrawal has also made Raqqa vulnerable to the regime, which nearly all of its residents vehemently oppose.
To report this article, Mogelson spent a couple weeks in Raqqa, talking to the people who live there. He also spent time in Ain Issa, where Russian troops have moved into former U.S. bases, and in Jazira, where Russian and American patrols frequently confront one another. He visited several frontline positions where the S.D.F. are facing off against the Turks, and met with multiple former residents of a sprawling refugee camp that was frantically evacuated when it fell under the crossfire of Kurdish and Turkish forces.