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Increased worries in northeast Syria following US Afghanistan withdrawal

Text and Photos By WLADIMIR VAN WILGENBURG

HASAKAH PROVINCE, Syria - During an embedded Coalition patrol near oil facilities close to the town of Derik, a villager last week (8.21) immediately reminded US-led forces to stay in northeast Syria. “Don’t do here what you did in Afghanistan.’ Jwer Omer, a local village elder, told the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) during the Coalition patrol visit that the United States should not leave the Kurds alone. “We want security and that they don’t leave us Kurds, we as Kurds have seen a lot of oppression, in Iraq, in Syria, in Turkey, we just are getting killed.”

“We want security and we want to end oppression,” he added. Last week, MECRA was embedded with the Coalition during a short visit to northeast Syria. Sergeant Jesse Cummings, a squad leader from the Alabama National Guard’s C Company, 1st Battalion, 173rd Infantry Regiment who regularly leads patrols in Syria, said that the local populace have been very friendly to Coalition forces since his deployment. “Since I’ve been here, I fell in love with these people, even when we go to Arab villages, they are also friendly and bring us our chai (tea).”

Although he said he did not hear any concerns over the US Afghanistan withdrawal, he adds that villagers every time ask the 900 US-led Coalition forces currently deployed to stay in Syria. “I think that's one reason that they're so giving (kind) toward us,” he said, “because they want us to stay.” “And that also provides some security when you get in there, you know, that the villagers on your side, the population is for you (support you).” As reported earlier for MECRA, the Syrian Kurds have not forgotten former president Donald Trump's green light for a Turkish invasion in October 2019 and withdrawal of US forces that was later canceled. In October 2019, US forces pulled out from most of northeast Syria, but stayed in Deir al-Zour and the Hasakah province.


Afghanistan is not Syria


However, the Biden administration doesn’t show any sign of leaving and is thinking of increasing aid to northeast Syria.


“The mission in Afghanistan is an entirely different mission, in a different part of the world,” OIR Spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto told MECRA.


"And the global coalition to defeat Daash is in Iraq and Syria at the invitation of the Iraqi government, so working by, with, through our partner forces the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces), SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), and Peshmerga we're gonna defeat Daash and ensure the enduring defeat of Daash (ISIS).”

Nevertheless, Barzan Mohammed, a top Asayish (internal security force) commander in the Hasakah province expressed concerns. “They did it once before (in October 2019) before Afghanistan and we still have the threat of ISIS,” he told MECRA.

“We have the prisoners, the camps and we think the Coalition did not finish their mission.” “Look how many problems we faced in (October 2019) in a short period.” The Washington Post reported that recently, the Biden Administration has sought to reassure the SDF, by sending Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, who heads U.S. Central Command, and Joey Hood, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, to the region to talk with them. “In the long run, the goal is to ensure that local security forces can continue to do this work without us,” McKenzie told reporters about the Coalition mission with the SDF in Syria. However, SDF leaders say in the short-term still a lot of support is needed and that more action is needed to solve the issue of foreign ISIS prisoners and thousands of ISIS wives and children in displacement camps in northeast Syria.


Aram Hanna, the new SDF spokesperson, and commander in the Syriac Military Council (SMC), which has resisted attacks by ISIS, by Turkish-backed Islamist groups and by Turkey on areas with a Christian population in the region, says they have a lot of problems in the area, with Turkey, the Syrian regime, Iran, ISIS prisoners. “I think they won’t leave for now, but we will have a lot of work together and hope it will be effective.” However, he said you cannot compare Afghanistan to Syria. “For example, the Americans trained the Afghan security forces as an army, but they didn’t choose to fight, and this is a fact.” However, he said the SDF will resist anyone who attacks “us or our people. It’s our duty to our people, and it's our responsibility.”

Local leaders in northeast Syria have also tried to assure locals that Syria is different from Afghanistan, such as Syrian Democratic Council leader Ilham Ahmed during a recent local meeting. Also in neighbouring Iraq, Iraqi Kurdish leaders have tried to reassure the local population that the Kurdistan Region is different from Afghanistan amidst Kurdish fears in both Iraq and Syria over the US position.


Regime and Turkish threats The SDF spokesperson also said that the SDF faces both threats from the Syrian regime and Turkey, not only ISIS. “Our decision, however, is to resist. This is our right.” Adversaries to the US have also used the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to threaten the SDF.

Syria's foreign minister said in public that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead to similar defeats for American troops in Syria and other parts of the world and is a “strong lesson” for allies to the US. Attempts by SDF to reach a deal to recognize local autonomy by Damascus so far have failed.

In April, pro-Syrian government militias attacked Kurdish-led forces in the border city of Qamishli, which led to their defeat in a battle that lasted nearly a week and ended their presence in some neighbourhoods in Qamishli (although they still control the airport, the border crossing and the security square in Qamishli). Coalition sources say the battle didn’t affect joint Coalition-SDF patrols closer to the Iraqi-Turkish border area. Hanna said it's not the first time the regime has attacked the SDF. In the past, the Syrian government also attacked the SDF in Qamishlo, Hasakah, and Deir ar Zour. Moreover, Iranian-backed militias have targeted US-led forces in Deir al-Zour amidst ongoing Iran-US tensions. The Biden administration has hit Iran-backed groups in Syria twice, after they carried out attacks targeting Coalition forces in Iraq.


Lt. Col. Richard Locke, commander of the Alabama National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 173rd Infantry Regiment, who commands Coalition forces at a base in the Hasakah province, told MECRA that his forces faced indirect fire activity and drone threats by outlaw militia groups. “We have shot down a drone, and we have also conducted counter battery and self defense in a couple of those instances.”


The SDF spokesperson confirmed that their forces have been targeted by both Turkish and Iranian drones.


However, for the SDF, the main threat is Turkey. While the Coalition protects itself against drones from Iran-backed groups, this is not the case for their SDF partners targeted further away near the frontlines with Turkish-backed groups from Turkish drone strikes.


While Turkey in the past carried out individual drone strikes from time to time, Turkey recently targeted SDF commanders in a wave of drone strikes. The SDF suspects that Russia might have green lighted the attacks, despite US-Turkish and Russian-Turkish ceasefire deals that were supposed to have stopped the fighting in October 2019.


“We opened an office in Switzerland, the Turks can read that clearly,” Hanna said, about recent diplomatic efforts by the local Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).


He suggests that Turkey wants to destabilize northeast Syria, to show that northern Syria is not safe. “But we will resist and we will respond and not allow them,” Hanna said. Also local Asayish head Barzan Mohammed stated that the main purpose of Turkey is to create instability in the area and “spread fear among civilians.”


He also stated that Turkey hit a hospital near Qamishli and targeted civilians during the attacks. “These attacks (on a hospital) are not legal.”


Last month, Turkey also hit a hospital in Sinjar in neighbouring Iraq.


Water concerns Apart from ongoing threats from Iran, Turkey and the Syrian government, there are also increased worries over water issues due to climate change and the worsening economic conditions in northern Syria. During the patrol, local villagers complained about the low water levels, drought and lack of job opportunities and requested more humanitarian aid.


In April 2021, the Global Drought Observatory (GDO) issued a drought warning for northeastern Syria, which is known as Syria’s breadbasket.


“The drought that they've had this year. It's obviously just had a huge impact on them,” Captain Freddy Taul, a company commander in the 173rd confirmed, after hearing concerns from villagers during patrols.


Coalition soldiers take notes with local concerns for reports that “help paint the picture for people who make decisions, we get the information and set it out, but it's up to other people to act on it.”


The author with Coalition forces

Syrian Kurds say the drought is also caused by Turkey, which is seeking to weaponise the water issue as a way to undermine stability in northeastern Syria. According to the WFP, the low water levels are believed to be a result of above average dry spells as well as a reduction of water flowing from Turkey to Syria. The WFP cited the Syrian government data that suggests that the Tishreen dam (which is under SDF control) received around 180 cubic meters of water per second during most of May. This represents less than half of the minimum amount of water outlined by the 1987 Syria-Turkey water sharing agreement.


Turkey has also cut water supplies to the town of Hasakah from the Alouk water station in Ras al-Ain (Serekaniye), which Turkey and its militant proxies took over in October 2019 during Ankara’s so-called Peace Spring Operation. However, Turkey in July denied the allegations, and blamed the SDF for obstructing electricity supplies to the water station. As a result of worsening living conditions, some have tried to leave northern Syria. One civilian recently died on August 28, after being tortured by Turkish border forces, when he tried to smuggle himself into Turkey near the town of Qahtaniyah. “The Turks attacked schools, cut electricity, water supplies, cut water to the Euphrates river, which made things harder and harder. Now ISIS is using the Euphrates river to cross from the other side of the Euphrates (controlled by the regime), this is another problem,” the SDF spokesperson Hanna lamented. However, it seems unlikely that Russia and the US would stop Turkish drone strikes in the near future. Especially since Russia has an interest in weakening the SDF in order to gain concessions for Damascus. He added that Russia and the US as guarantors to the October 2019 ceasefire agreements can do more to stop attacks. “If they want to stop that, they can stop it, it's not something impossible if they use the right pressure.”

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