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With U.S. troops in retreat in Syria, American aid groups step into the gap

Front-line focus

U.S. military vehicles withdraw from northern Syria on Oct. 21.  (Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images)

At the 2 a.m. watch, gunshots aren’t far away. Automatic rifles trade fire in rounds that echo across the old buildings of Tel Tamer. At a compound adjoining the hospital, two watchmen with Free Burma Rangers stand guard, their faces framed between a glow of red lights coming from the emergency room and green lights of a minaret from the mosque across the way.

Unable to sleep, I join them, and ask whether this much shooting is normal. 

“As long as the bread factory is going, we know we’re OK.”

Warm light and malty aromas emanate from the three-story factory. The gunfire makes it impossible to forget this town of Christians, Arabs, and Kurds is the front line for an ongoing assault by Turkey. 

As the United States began its retreat from northeast Syria in October, these Americans moved in. Free Burma Rangers, led by Dave Eubank, is a Christian-based volunteer medic corps. In 27 days serving alongside Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria, its team members evacuated 149 wounded and 83 dead. One of their own also was killed. Burmese medic Zau Seng came under Turkish fire while the team treated the wounded in November. An Iraqi translator working with the group was wounded in the same attack.

Fighting in northeast Syria has fallen from headlines but hardly slowed. Turkey continues to violate terms of a cease-fire. It also breaks a separate agreement reached Oct. 22, confining military operations to a mapped buffer zone extending 19 miles into Syria from the Turkish border.

Tel Tamer sits outside that buffer zone but last month became the focus of attacks by Turkish artillery, airstrikes, and armed drones—all in airspace that remains under U.S. control. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has pulled back from the buffer zone but vows to fight Turkey outside it. 

‘Pray, trust God, listen to the locals, put yourself under their authority, tell them the truth about everything, hide nothing, be willing to risk everything, and tell them every asset we have is theirs.’ —Code of the Free Burma Rangers 

Tel Tamer’s hospital in November counted 170 dead and 600 wounded, most of them civilians. Hospital director Hassan Amin said he’s never seen these kinds of casualties. Most are wounded by airstrikes and rockets, arriving without limbs or with parts of their torsos missing.

Standing by the hospital with the thud of mortar rounds in the distance, I saw six wounded individuals arrive by ambulance. Overhead came the whine of a circling drone, unfazed by enormous plumes rising from tires set on fire to create a smokescreen.

Eubank has been making daily and nightly patrols with his team to rescue the wounded, often alongside the Kurdish Red Crescent and other overworked ambulances. The team has repeatedly come under fire, including from Turkish tanks. Despite the effort, they’ve watched a humanitarian crisis grow with little outside help.

Local officials say at least 150,000 people—and perhaps as many as 300,000—have fled their homes since October. Turkish assaults on the border towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad forced residents out and emptied surrounding villages. The locals report atrocities by forces Turkey launched into Syria starting Oct. 9, chiefly the Free Syrian Army (or Syrian National Army), an opposition force now made up of Islamic militants that fought under al-Qaeda and ISIS. 

Pharmacist Rashid Sheikh Sulemon saw people burned and beheaded in Ras al-Ayn before he was forced to leave with his family. The Turkish-backed forces led men into the street, he said, tied their hands behind their backs, and tortured and killed them. He volunteered for days as a medic until it became too dangerous. Members of the Free Syrian Army bombed his car and set his house on fire. 

“Executing individuals, pillaging property, and blocking displaced people from returning to their homes is damning evidence of why Turkey’s proposed ‘safe zones’ will not be safe,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Turkey’s proxy armies, she said, “are themselves committing abuses against civilians and discriminating on ethnic grounds.”

Free Burma Rangers

The Eubank family in Syria in November. From left to right: Peter, Suuzanne, Sahale, Karen, and David. (Free Burma Rangers)

As the crisis swelled and assaults increased, most large aid groups evacuated. Caring for the displaced has fallen to local governing councils caught largely unprepared and to smaller groups nimble and brave enough to remain.

In Hasakah, local officials closed schools to convert them into shelters. They currently house about 25,000 people in 68 schools, according to Khalid Ibrahim, coordinator for the area’s humanitarian affairs office. 

Families in the schools I visited had few provisions beyond thin mattresses and blankets. At Ibn Atheer school, a mother—afraid to give her name because her father remained in Turkish-held territory—told me her family had gone 20 days without bathing and her children had lice. A man from her village who tried to go back said the houses had been burned and pillaged. “We have nothing to go back to,” she said.

Michigan-based Partners Relief and Development is working with 270 local volunteers to set up kitchens serving two meals per day in the schools. Since October the group has prepared nearly 3 million meals. The need is “overwhelming,” said Partners President Steve Gumaer. “We are the biggest organization here, but we are not a big organization. Already we’re working above capacity.”

Partners also contracted with a local factory to outfit sleeping bags with pads and water-resistant covers for those sleeping in camps. 

One camp near Hasakah, under construction when I visited in mid-November, had 700 residents. They had tents but no heat, water, or toilet facilities. By December the camp had 2,200 residents and more tents, along with pledges for more help. 

Mindy Belz

A school building in Hasakah is converted into a shelter for displaced families from Ras al-Ayn. (Mindy Belz)

The Iraq-based Barzani Charity Foundation, Mercy Corps, and others have trucked in water and other supplies. Church officials told me that Open Doors and Operation Mobilization had contributed to their efforts to care for displaced Christians. The International Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent distributed bedding and water to makeshift shelters (see “Questionable Aid” at wng.org for more on the challenges for aid groups and donors in northeast Syria).

Eubank also has taken time from the front lines to make food and water distributions. Displacement will continue, he said, as fighting persists and control of the region is uncertain. “The armies are all here,” he said. “We’ve got Syrians, Russians, Iranians, Turks, ISIS, you name it.” 

While the final fallout of Turkey’s advance remains unclear, Eubank says two decades of work in Burma prepared him for Middle East chaos. “There, we are in a war zone on the losing side, airplanes against us, tanks against us, greatly outnumbered, and with no outside help.”

The same code Free Burma Rangers adopted in southeast Asia applies here: “Pray, trust God, listen to the locals, put yourself under their authority, tell them the truth about everything, hide nothing, be willing to risk everything, and tell them every asset we have is theirs.”

Eubank, 59, founded Free Burma Rangers with his wife Karen in 1997 out of backpack medical work among ethnic groups battling for survival against the military regime that renamed their country Myanmar. 

The Eubanks reared three children—now 19, 17, and 14 years old—hiking mountains, enduring shootouts, beating tropical diseases, and sleeping in bamboo huts (see “Jungle Cowboys,” March 19, 2016). The jungles of Burma defeated many a soldier in World War II, but Eubank’s rangers today operate more than 90 medic teams there. 

Mindy Belz

The Washi Kani displacement camp outside Hasakah (Mindy Belz)

The son of American missionaries in Thailand, Eubank learned Thai before English. His mother gave up a stint on Broadway, including with Julie Andrews, to join her husband, who celebrates 60 years on the field in Thailand—and his 90th birthday—this month. Eubank served for a decade with U.S. special operations forces and earned a theology degree from Fuller Seminary in California before launching his own organization. 

Eubank says he had zero desire to work in the Middle East, but on a hike in Burma he received a text from a friend challenging him to put to work the rangers’ skills in the fight against ISIS. 

The group worked alongside Iraqi Kurds in Sinjar fighting to dislodge ISIS starting in 2015 before hooking up with Iraq army units in Mosul in 2017. In northeast Syria they first joined Kurdish-led forces outside Kobani, and earlier this year at Baghuz the work included treating the enemy—ISIS fighters and their families who surrendered. 

Burmese team members labor alongside retired Delta Force and other former U.S. soldiers. They raise their own support, but hardly fit the idea of a mission organization. Eubank wants to rekindle what Red Cross teams and chaplains once did in wartime. “Our role is to be in the humanitarian gap at the front line. And right now people don’t go to the humanitarian gap.”

During the battle of Mosul, Eubank said, “We got involved because nobody could take food in. ‘You’d get shot,’ I’d hear, and I couldn’t believe it. These families there, they’re all getting shot. Just try not to get shot.”

Handout

A Free Burma Rangers medic treats a wounded SDF soldier during an evacuation from the front lines to a hospital.  (Handout)

Eubank himself was wounded in Mosul rescuing an injured Iraqi girl. In Tel Tamer he’s had narrow escapes. Team members use armored vehicles, and many carry weapons. 

Eubank is unapologetic about bringing his family. Syrian families face life-and-death risks all the time, he said. Karen and their children arrived in Tel Tamer five weeks into the mission, helping to deliver aid kits to displaced people. As they do everywhere they go, they hosted “Good Life Clubs” with games and Bible stories. 

Inside the compound, the kids do school projects at a table where the team also eats meals and plans missions. They collect pets wherever they go, here giving a stray dog and a baby hedgehog Kurdish names.

Any Swiss Family Robinson comparisons break down, though. Eubank is a steely tactician and earns respect for his readiness to go where others refuse to. Seasoned war journalists stopped in at the Tel Tamer compound for updates from Eubank, who stood before a whiteboard chronicling six weeks of heavy fighting. When he interrupted his own rapid-fire storytelling with spontaneous prayer, no one seemed to mind.

One of his roles in Syria, he believes, is to document what’s happened since Trump launched a sudden U.S. pullout and made statements supporting the Turkish advance. 

In November the rangers captured on video an attack at Ain Issa, a town also outside the buffer zone. With airstrikes and gunfire pounding the area, Eubank and his ambulance crew helped to rescue some of the 22 wounded and five killed, taking them to a hospital in Kobani. Eubank left to take a break from the front lines shortly after, leaving a small team of medics in place. 

I was with Eubank in Tel Tamer the day President Donald Trump met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House. Trump told reporters, “The cease-fire is holding very well.” Eubank was away from the front line, supervising the medic Zau Seng’s cremation. 

Is this your most dangerous mission? I asked. 

Yes, he said. 

Then what made you come?

“It’s an injury to my soul what America has done,” he said, suddenly stifling emotion. “It’s like my family has hurt this family.”

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

Comments

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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Thu, 12/12/2019 10:18 pm

    On this one I agree with Mindy that this is one of Trump's mistakes, even though he has done a lot of good for America! I always thought that the US should create safe regions and keep the radical Turkish Muslims out of Syria, whether it be the Turkish military or their proxy groups! We need to pray that Trump's eyes are opened and he changes the US policy to do good in Syria and the local region.  Our bailing on the Kurds and Christians is shameful and I admire Mr. Eubank's courage to stay and make a difference! I would ask that other former military Christians would consider going and supporting the Free Burma Rangers group. If our country won't do it, individual Christians can along with the nonprofit groups cited and others who decide to go.  We can also support these nonprofit groups that Mindy lists to help in this effort. If there are any big donors out there, please consider a large donation to these groups. Even if you are not big, consider cutting back some for Christmas so we can give some joy to these displaced people by our giving  - especially for the Christians. We should also pray for Mr. Eubanks, his family, other Americans working there, and all the people there - Christian and non-Christian alike. 
     

    President Trump has done a lot of good for America so we should support him by voting for him next election, though we should realize that there are some things which we will not get.  I don't know if he is a real born again Christian, but no matter, we should be grateful what we do have and pray that President Trump will be blessed with wisdom to lead America where it should go and that his heart would be softened if he is not a Christian. 

  •  nevertheless's picture
    nevertheless
    Posted: Tue, 12/17/2019 06:41 am

    "Eubank is unapologetic about bringing his family. Syrian families face life-and-death risks all the time, he said. " I commend the work they are doing but I question his judgement in allowing his family to be exposed to the potential danger present in Syria. Otherwise, well done!

  • Hawkdriver
    Posted: Wed, 12/18/2019 12:48 pm

    Retreat: a withdraw from enemy forces as a result of their superior power or after a defeat.

    Great reporting, but, words have meaning.  My military friends in Syria did NOT retreat.  They stratigically withrew as ordered for reasons they could not control.  In no way did they retreat.