US pullout from Syria could bring 'another rise of ISIS' researcher says

The World
US and Turkish military forces conduct a joint ground patrol inside the security mechanism area in northeast, Syria, October 4, 2019.

US and Turkish military forces conduct a joint ground patrol inside the security mechanism area in northeast, Syria, October 4, 2019.

US Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl/Handout via Reuters

The White House on Sunday said President Donald Trump had endorsed a controversial plan to pull US troops away from key border posts in the Kurdish region of northern Syria and to allow the Turkish military to move in. The president defended his decision Monday with a tweet: "I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars."

The plan was loudly criticized by lawmakers from both parties. 

Turkey wants to set up what it calls a safe zone. But many former US officials are calling Trump's decision a betrayal of America's allies in the region — the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a coalition of groups led by the Kurdish YPG. They did most of the fighting to take down ISIS in Syria.

But the Turks see the SDF as a threat because of their ties to separatist Kurdish groups inside Turkey.

Robin Fleming is a researcher with the Rojava Information Center, a research and advocacy group for the Kurdish areas of Syria. She spoke to The World's Marco Werman on what the US pullout means for the Kurds. 

Marco Werman: Have US troops already started their withdrawal? 

Robin Fleming: Yes. We've seen pictures and heard reports from various camps alongside the border where troops have already started abandoning their bases. 

So American soldiers had been acting as kind of a tripwire for us to deter Turkey from coming into this part of Syria. Does this suggest that there is now nothing to stop the Turks from coming in? 

Yes. The US was instrumental in this agreement between the United States and Turkey to create this security mechanism along the border where they agreed to do joint patrols to sort of satisfy Turkey to ensure that the border was secure. And now without the presence of the US, this agreement is kind of void. So with the absence of the US there is no longer this agreement that was supposed to prevent Turkey from invading. 

Related: 'We have suffered enough,' say families of the missing and detained in Syria 

And so what is reaction then? 

The reaction is what we've kind of seen before, because this is not the first time that the US has threatened to withdraw troops from this area. We saw this late last year. And it's also not the first time that Turkey has threatened to attack. And so now, like before, the SDF and other civil and military institutions are saying that they wanted to avoid a military escalation. But if they are attacked they will respond and they will defend northern Syria. And so they have prepared before and are preparing now to do this. 

So whatever the signals are from Washington, and they are somewhat contradictory, the Turkish threat to invade still stands. Are people moving away from these threatened areas? 

Yes. We don't yet have any numbers on how many people are leaving the area because this is still quite new news, but there have been reports that some people are preparing to leave, move further away from the border. But a lot of civilians are quite nervous, as they have been nervous before. 

Related: ‘It kills you, the waiting’: Syrians live under threat of deportation in Turkey 

So if the Turks move into this area of Syria, and they've promised to do so, will the local forces like the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the YPG, the Kurds — will they resist them and fight back? What have you been hearing? 

There have been many statements released by these groups saying that if necessary, they will definitely defend the area. Earlier this year, when Turkey was also threatening to attack, someone stated that if there is one location in northern Syria that is attacked, the whole border will become a frontline. So they are definitely prepared to resist and prepared to defend themselves. 

The Turks say their motives are humanitarian, though, to set up a safe area for people displaced by the Syrian civil war. Do you and the Kurds believe them? 

We recently, as the Rojava Information Center, released a report documenting both Turkish cross-border attacks on northeast Syria and attacks from Syria to Turkey, and the results of this research were that Turkey has over 30 times shot at civilians across the border. And there was one instance of an attack from Syria to Turkey and that person was arrested by the SDF. This was not the SDF making this attack. So I think that this research shows really clearly that its motives are not just self-defense. Its motives are not just to protect itself. It's also speaking a lot about returning Syrian refugees to their homes. But most of these refugees are actually from other parts of Syria and not north and east Syria. 

Related: Turkey denies deporting refugees to Syria. Activists say they’ve sent back thousands. 

So Robin, it may be evident from your accent you're from the US. You're a volunteer there partly because the Kurds need English speakers, from what I gather. How worried are you personally about what comes next? 

Personally I'm just going to continue to do my work here. Like you said, we are a volunteer-based research organization. We are not going to be the first target obviously, and we are not in the hottest area, so we will take precautions to be safe. But personally, I am not so worried but I'm paying attention to the political situation, obviously. 

Related: Torn apart by the Syrian war, these siblings struggle to stay connected across 6 different countries 

So you probably saw the statement from President Trump. He said that the US will no longer be responsible for the thousands of ISIS fighters being held prisoner in Syria. He said the US has defeated them 100%. But those ISIS fighters are actually being held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. What will happen to those ISIS detainees now?

Yes, this is a really big topic. First of all, I don't think it can be true to say that [ISIS is] 100% defeated. Every month, the Rojava Information Center releases reports documenting both ISIS and other sleeper cell attacks that are happening on a monthly basis still. And there are still ISIS fighters, ISIS family members, by the thousands in prisons and in camps here. And these camps are already really stretched for resources. And if there is an attack, obviously the resources would become even more stretched, and the risk is really high that they will no longer be able to be kept there in a secure way, that they will in some way break free. There will be, you could say, another rise of ISIS. This is a very serious threat. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.