Renas Zuber lights another cigarette as the carnage plays out on TV.
Two days after a temporary cease-fire was called on the Turkish invasion into northern Syria, civilians are under siege in the border town of Serekaniye. Cellphone footage looping onscreen shows a man writhing on the ground in a tangle of ashen bodies and limbs after a mortar strike. Chaotic scenes flash from a hospital as the wounded are rushed in, trailing blood. Another clip shows a convoy of U.S. forces pulling out of the region.
“Trump is pleased to watch us suffer like this,” Zuber, a Kurdish border officer, vents in disgust. “We expected the Americans would leave one day, but not this way.”
The Kurds have been die-hard allies to the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, clearing one-third of Syria at a cost of more than 11,000 lives. But following a late-night October 6th phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Trump ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Kurdish-controlled territory, effectively greenlighting a Turkish invasion, code named “Operation Peace Spring.” As U.S. special forces abandoned their outposts, the world’s ninth most powerful military unleashed swift and brutal force that crushed Kurdish defenses and uprooted more than 300,000 people in a matter of days. The security vacuum is already being exploited by dormant ISIS fighters, fueling fears of a resurgence. And after years of fighting that have cost more than 1,000 lives and billions of dollars, U.S. influence is at a nadir. Russia has emerged as the chief powerbroker in Syria and as an ascendant force in the Middle East.
Betrayal of the Kurds has been called an American tradition — having happened, by some counts, eight times over the past 100 years. But Zuber, like most of our Kurdish hosts, understands that many U.S. soldiers and politicians were “very angry” that Trump had so abruptly forsaken them. “We know this decision comes from the man at the top,” Zuber tells us. We met him shortly after entering the conflict zone in late October, at the outset of a four-day trip to gauge the blowback of the U.S. withdrawal. Kurds had pelted exiting American convoys with rocks and vegetables, a surreal turn of events that was likened to the fall of Saigon.
Trump’s about-face brought a bitter end to Rojava, the 19,000-square-mile swath of Kurdish-controlled territory that grew to symbolize much more. The name does not exist on any formal map, but for a long persecuted ethnic minority, denied a state of their own and divided among four hostile countries, the autonomous enclave was a short-lived, if imperfect, attempt to seed democracy that championed pluralism, self-governance, and women’s rights, under the protection of the largely Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces.
The dream was destined to end. Turkey has always viewed the SDF’s core fighting force, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as an extension of the PKK insurgency it has battled for 35 years, and considers it a terrorist organization (even though Kurds in Syria have not attacked across the border in years). By launching an invasion, Erdogan sought to rally the electorate around a unifying narrative of an existential threat, with no quarter for civilians who stood in the way.
At the Salam (Peace) Hospital in Qamishli, the de facto capital of the Kurdish-held region, I meet a Syriac Christian couple whose home and shop were leveled by Turkish-army shells. Juliet Nicola is recovering from surgery after sustaining near-fatal shrapnel injuries to her stomach and back. “The doctors say she may never walk again,” says her husband, Fadi. A separate ward houses 8-year-old girl Sara Yousef, who lost her right leg. She also lost her 15-year-old brother, Mohammad, who was killed in the fighting. At a clinic in Hasakah City, children are being treated for what appear to be burns from white phosphorus, a highly flammable chemical banned for use in densely populated areas. As fighting raged on, Amnesty International declared that summary killings and attacks against non-combatants committed by Turkey and its proxies constituted war crimes.
SDF fighters dug in to stanch the advance of Turkish-backed ground forces. But they were outnumbered and outgunned, and battlefield losses were multiplying fast. South of the M-4 highway, we join a funeral cortege for Marwan Khalif, a 27-year-old volunteer who was killed several days before in Serekaniye. The 20-van caravan wends its way through barren plains and mud-brick Arab villages that U.S.-backed Kurdish forces had fought tooth and nail to liberate from ISIS. Young men line the roadside to pay their respects, flanked by crumbling walls and religious shrines left in ruin by the jihadists.
A crowd of several hundred is waiting at the martyr’s cemetery in Tell Hamis, a mostly Arab community about 25 miles south of Qamishli. Thirty-six marble headstones honoring those killed in Deir Ezzour, Baghouz, and Raqqa — major battles against ISIS — sit beside a dozen fresh dirt mounds with casualties from the fight against Turkey. Dour men and women gather around as Khalif is laid to rest and, after a short prayer, hastily covered with earth. At least two more bodies are due to be interred the next day.
“We will give 100,000 more lives,” Ahmed Abawi, the cemetery manager, responds when asked how deep support for the Kurds ran in the predominantly Arab community. “In this graveyard there are Arabs, Kurds, Syrians — they all fought together like brothers,” he says. Ethnic groups have coexisted in the area for centuries, he notes. ISIS was able to exploit grinding poverty and low education; Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime had tried to sew divisions, only to abandon them to ISIS extremists. “The Kurds,” he says, “fought and died for us.”
Although Tell Hemis is south of the 20-mile-deep, 300-mile-wide “safe zone” demanded by Turkey, Abawi and other locals worry the security vacuum left by the Kurds pulling back will embolden ISIS fighters who are active in villages along the Syria-Iraq border to assassinate tribal leaders who refused to cooperate. The area is still awash in guns and explosives. An October 11th car bomb in Qamishli had killed five people, and social media blasts from local ISIS recruiters saying, “We are coming back!” did little to calm nerves. “These sleeper cells will never allow us to live in peace,” says Jabr Al-Salmo, an Arab school teacher in Tell Hemis.
U.S. officials estimate there are as many as 18,000 ISIS fighters at-large in Iraq and Syria. Another 12,000 from some 50 nationalities are being held in Kurdish prisons where control has become increasingly tenuous.
A Kurdish intelligence official tells me that overflow from the prisons are held in schools and offices, and that all ISIS prisoners have been relocated further south from the Turkish-occupied zone. “We are protecting not just for Europe but all the world,” he says, “but our biggest priority is fighting against Turkey and protection of our nation.” Half of the personnel guarding ISIS prisoners have been pulled away since the invasion began. He warns, “If Turkey continues to attack, for sure many more [prisoners] will escape.”
A creeping sense of dread as the cease-fire sets to expire gives way to another wave of uncertainty. After six hours of talks earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan announced a deal that would irrevocably shift the balance of power in Syria. Turkey got the annexation of Kurdish land it wanted. And over the next 120 hours, Russian and Syrian forces would deploy along the border and begin joint patrols to ensure SDF forces pulled out.
Qamishli is exempted from the patrols, but in the morning its streets are quiet and shop fronts shuttered. The only trace of the YPG are martyr’s memorials. Pockets of Syrian regime soldiers have been posted around the city since the Kurds took charge, but they are confined to sandbagged barracks. The new deal has left everyone unsure if Assad’s forces will push outward and assert themselves. A midday car bombing adds to the confusion.
Reliable information is scant, the ground dynamics fluid. Russians and Syrians are due to assume control of points along the Syria-Turkey border, but will this include the Semelka crossing, the lone exit point into Iraqi Kurdistan. SDF authorities make assurances the border will stay open. But in the new state of play, what leverage do they have? Kurdish forces are withdrawing, and so do we.
The drive out is bleak. Some SDF checkpoints are totally empty, others guarded by a few holdouts. Oil pumps creak away on the gray horizon, the air tinged with acrid smoke from makeshift refineries (part of an aging infrastructure that, in a cynical twist, Trump will soon redeploy U.S. forces to protect). Flatbed trucks full of families fleeing east queue at gas stations. Those without transport wait roadside for a ride, clutching what they can carry: infants, bedrolls, plastic bags of clothes.
Our driver, Abdulrahman, is torn between getting us to the border and getting back to his wife and two children; he is fearful the regime will seize the moment to expand its presence. Back in 2008, he had spent 14 months in a prison for lighting a bonfire on the Naw Ruz holiday, disregarding a regime prohibition against celebrations. When fighting broke out in his native Aleppo, he had joined a Kurdish protection unit, and went on to fight more than three years to beat back ISIS, losing some 30 friends along the way. “Nowhere is safe for the Kurds,” he says. “If the racist regime comes back, they won’t allow us to breathe.”
“The world has sold us out again,” he adds. “Trump is a businessman who deals with the blood of nations.”