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If anyone at Church of the Good Shepherd in Afrin celebrated President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria, they weren’t Christians. The church was emptied of its regular worshippers when a militia backed by Turkey invaded a year ago, setting fire to the church in a once-multiethnic and peaceful city barely 70 miles from the U.S. base at Manbij. The church became a jihadist war room, as Sharia law and the Turkish language took over in Afrin. Turkey, using Islamist militias, controls border areas in some places extending 60 miles into Syria—a blatant NATO violation the United States seemed to OK.
The January 2018 Turkish offensive displaced about 167,000 Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. It also began a new phase of incoherent U.S. policy in Syria many hoped had ended with the Obama era. It culminated in Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet announcing a U.S. pullout.
The pullout, while much smaller than the president’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan, represents a strategic shift in a fragile country still at war. Besides handing the Turkey-Syria border to Turkey, it means withdrawing about 200 U.S. troops from Tanf, a garrison in southern Syria straddling what will likely become a critical supply route for Iran.
Trump’s sudden move represents in its small footprint a catastrophic loss of U.S. objectives in the Middle East—where there is ample agreement that ISIS is not defeated; where Turkey with Russia and Iran could launch a new war over Syrian territory and control of the Assad government; and where key allies Israel and Jordan now find themselves open to renewed threats.
For months local residents have told me they fear Turkey more than ISIS.
Beyond the internal battles in the Trump administration, those are the reasons for the swift resignations last month from Defense Secretary James Mattis and diplomat Brett McGurk—who since 2015 served as the presidential envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIS. Perhaps no two U.S. officials understand the terrain better and the dire implications.
But lost in much of the reporting and punditry have been the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allied with the United States and controlling Syria’s northeast. A multiethnic, nonsectarian movement of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrian Christians, and others, the SDF fought under U.S. air cover to win back from ISIS key cities like Kobani and Raqqa.
The SDF controls northeastern Syria to the Iraq border and north to the Turkish border, including areas where U.S. troops have been stationed. Its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, is an anti-ISIS, pro-democracy civilian coalition on its way to governing a self-administration zone that could become a safe haven for brutalized Christians and Yazidis. It also portends an alternative to authoritarianism in a region desperately needing just that. Yet with Turkey, Iran, and Russia all vying for control of the zone’s oil-rich breadbasket, the SDF depends on U.S. presence to survive.
For months local residents have told me they fear Turkey more than ISIS. Sanharib Barsoum, the deputy head of the Syriac Union Party, told a Kurdish newscast that a takeover of U.S. positions by Turkey “is a threat against this democratic project, and all the people who live east of the Euphrates, including Christians.”
Keeping a small footprint in Syria while upping U.S. demands is possible, starting with a demand that Turkey withdraw to its own border or forfeit U.S. armaments and bases. The United States could impose a coalition no-fly zone over the northern self-administration zone, inviting Turkey and perhaps even Russia to join such an effort or get lost. And it could become a vocal supporter for the Syrian Democratic Council and its forces in peace negotiations already lurching forward in Moscow and Damascus without the United States. Each of these holds the possibility of building on hard-won achievements rather than watching them crumble in a landscape drenched in human suffering.
—How to help Syria’s Christians and other religious minorities? Write your own representative in Congress, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. Visit our website for faith-based groups working in Syria and Iraq: wng.org/iraqaid.