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Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scrambling

As Turkey threatens an offensive, thousands of civilians face disrupted assistance and new displacement

Hisham Arafat/UNHCR

As the United States and Turkey trade barbs over the US withdrawal from Syria, humanitarians operating in the country’s northeast say the diplomatic chaos has thrown open a Pandora’s Box of unpredictable security risks that threaten their ability to deliver aid to civilians.

Since 2015, US troops have lent military, financial, and political support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia fighting the so-called Islamic State. The SDF has hostile relations with Turkey, a NATO member and US ally, and the prospect of major Turkey-SDF conflict is now at the heart of discussions over how and when any US withdrawal should proceed.

Some two million civilians are thought to live in areas under SDF control, where relief operations provide support to the shattered city of Raqqa, aid to people fleeing conflict, and ongoing assistance to economically devastated resident communities.

Northeastern Syria has a large Kurdish community, which has largely avoided conflict with Damascus, even as the SDF has carved out territory fighting off IS with international help from the air.

A week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he might send troops into Syria “at any moment”, US President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday that he was beginning to move his own military out, and threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if the country attacked Kurds in the region. An Erdogan-Trump phone call on Tuesday sought to reduce tensions and find common ground as the US continued to prepare its withdrawal.

It has been nearly a month since Trump first announced he would remove his troops from Syria, but it’s unclear how the pullout will work. And with both Turkey and Syrian government authorities apparently counting the days until the Americans leave – leaving the SDF unprotected – working in the area has become a particularly risky prospect for an aid operation involving around 25 international NGOs, the UN, more than 150 local NGOs, and donors.

Despite being an agriculturally productive region, conflict, displacement, economic collapse and poor harvests have left a significant part of the population in need of humanitarian help.

“The last thing that northeast Syria needs is precipitate and unplanned moves,” David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who now heads the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement shortly after Trump’s initial December announcement. “Relative stability could be replaced by chaos,” he warned.

High humanitarian stakes

The United States and its coalition allies have used airstrikes to target IS, but only maintain a limited ground force and civilian contractors in the northeast.

Despite this small footprint, their presence has allowed at least some stability in the region, and by some measures the situation in northeast Syria has been improving over the past year. Displaced people are beginning to return home, particularly to Raqqa, despite the lack of infrastructure and services there.

But many people still need help. Data compiled by the NGO Mercy Corps and made available to IRIN indicates that some 2.1 million Syrians live under SDF rule, including half a million who have already fled their homes at least once.

That displacement continues even now, said Adnan Hezam, a Damascus-based spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He told IRIN that local sources recently counted 3,400 fresh arrivals from the Hajin area in eastern Deir Ezzor province, where the SDF is still fighting IS holdouts. Many had walked for days to reach camps where aid groups operate.

“There is rain and cold temperatures, they have no water, they’re scared of the shelling, some have lost family members on the way to the camp,” Hezam said. “There is also a risk of explosives and landmines contaminating the area.”

Winter storms and heavy rainfall recently flooded some camps, adding to the crisis.

And now the area is heading into an unknown future.

Who will fill the void?

“US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible,” Refugees International Vice President Hardin Lang, who visited SDF-held areas in 2018, told IRIN. “But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”

But even with the withdrawal set to begin, mixed messages continue to come out of Washington.

“US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible. But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”

Earlier in January, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States may keep a separate base at al-Tanf in southern Syria, and would not exit the northeast until IS has been fully defeated and Syrian Kurds were safe from persecution.

This triggered a sharp response from Erdogan. “Elements of the US administration are saying different things,” he said, refusing to meet with Bolton when he visited Turkey last week hoping to negotiate a deal that would secure the safety of Kurdish fighters.

US officials seem ready to hand SDF territory to Erdogan and his Syrian rebel allies, despite the extreme hostility between Turkey and the SDF’s Kurdish core group. That group is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government.

“The presence of a [PKK-friendly] area next to our border is not good for the future of Turkey,” a Turkish official told IRIN in a December interview. “We will keep fighting against this idea.”

Although Erdogan has told Trump he will intervene with the purpose of finally defeating IS in the region, Turkey views the US withdrawal primarily as a chance to demolish SDF-backed authorities that were previously shielded by the American presence.

In his tweet, Trump spoke about a 20-mile “security zone” along Turkey’s border, but offered no detail. Erdogan has long said he will establish a Turkish-controlled security zone in Syria, and when he responded on Tuesday, he portrayed Trump’s comments as a green light to drive the SDF away from Turkey’s borders.

“They are terrorists,” the Turkish president said. “Can we leave this area to the terrorists?”

A 20-mile Turkish “security zone” would cover most of northeastern Syria’s Kurdish-populated areas, including the cities of Qamishli, Amoude, and Kobane. Mercy Corps population data indicates that, depending on its exact borders, the area sought by Erdogan could include almost half the population in SDF-held areas.

However, military, humanitarian, and regional analysts tell IRIN the primary target of a Turkish intervention would likely be the Arab-majority region around Tel Abyad, north of Raqqa. Turkish forces could then head south to bisect SDF territories and take Ain Issa, a strategically located Arab town that functions as a local administrative centre, including for humanitarian affairs.

Kurdish officials in northeastern Syria say a Turkish incursion would bring chaos. “Attacks on the area would bring destruction and displace hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,” warned Hediye Yusuf, a senior official in the SDF-backed local authorities.

Desperate to avoid Turkish attack, Kurdish leaders are turning to Damascus and Moscow.

Kurdish leaders have said they want Russia to broker a return of SDF-ruled areas to central government control, while ensuring some form of local autonomy and a “fair distribution” of resources. They say SDF fighters should be integrated into al-Assad’s armed forces, and Russian and Syrian army troops should guard the border against Turkish incursions

Soon after Trump’s announcement, SDF leaders invited a symbolic Syrian army contingent to the outskirts of the flashpoint city of Manbij, on the far western end of the Kurdish-controlled region.

On 8 January, Russian military police also turned up in the area, apparently drawing a line in the sand to prevent Turkish intervention. In theory, Russian backing could allow President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to step in to fill the role the United States has up until now played as a bulwark against Turkey.

Even as all involved seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.

“If the regime comes to an agreement with the Kurdish and Arab forces in the region, it would prevent the land from being divided and occupied by Turkey,” Yusuf, the Kurdish official, told IRIN.

However, Russia is also in talks with Turkey, which distrusts al-Assad and fears that Kurdish groups could use an agreement with Damascus to ensconce themselves behind Russian and Syrian government lines.

Even as all involved, including Turkey, seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.

“I think northeastern Syria will be resolved transitionally and piece by piece,” said Sinan Hatahet, a senior fellow with the Istanbul-based Syrian think tank Omran Studies.

Complicating an already fragmented response

Sources linked to northeastern Syrian aid operations, who requested anonymity, have told IRIN that the see-sawing US policy is making it hard to plan ahead and ensure the protection of staff and local civilians.

Beyond the risk of violence and displacement, changes in territorial control will likely disrupt northeastern Syria’s complicated humanitarian architecture.

Some 200 non-Syrian aid workers currently live in SDF-held Syria, working with around 25 international NGOs that deliver food, healthcare, water, and education to local communities.

Most of these organisations are not registered with the Syrian government, which often refuses to let NGOs work both inside and outside its control – they have to choose.

That means these organisations cannot officially partner with the UN, which is represented in the northeast by an office in the border town of Qamishli that reports back to the UN’s Syria headquarters in Damascus. Syrian government officials have a presence in Qamishli, though most of the city is under SDF control.

Even as it bans aid from its territories to Turkish-held regions of Syria, al-Assad’s government has allowed UN convoys from Damascus and Aleppo to reach the SDF-held northeast.

But government forces routinely remove medical equipment from UN convoys.

To compensate, the UN brings in medical supplies through the SDF-held Yaaroubiyeh border crossing between Syria and Iraq, using a permission granted by the recently renewed UN Security Council Resolution 2165 to deliver cross-border aid without government pre-approval.

Meanwhile, most NGOs bring supplies in through the Fish Khabour crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also used by US troops.

Map of Syria showing control and borders as of January 2019

Stabilisation aid

In addition to UN and NGO relief, SDF areas are also bolstered by civilian contractors working on behalf of the US-led anti-IS coalition, with funding from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Denmark, and other US allies.

Unlike humanitarian NGOs, which strive to maintain neutrality, the stabilisation contractors are explicitly tasked with reinforcing SDF governance against IS and al-Assad’s influence.

In practice, however, much of their work takes the form of road repairs and the restoration of electricity, water, and sanitation – basic tasks that blend into the humanitarian effort and can often be a precondition for effective UN and NGO assistance.

US officials have also supported the humanitarian community more directly by offering medical airlifts and pushing SDF officials to provide information and access for aid groups.

Aid NGOs, which were mostly unwilling to speak on record, say their own work would suffer if the coalition stopped providing these basic services. They still take care not to be confused with coalition-funded contractors, in order to preserve neutrality, but for Damascus and Ankara the distinction is academic. Both governments regard NGOs that have chosen to work in SDF areas with suspicion, raising fears that local employees could be persecuted if the SDF loses control of the area.

Planning for an uncertain future

Even a non-violent shift in territorial control could hobble humanitarian operations in northeastern Syria. Although US authorities have stopped funding the stabilisation effort, an SDF official said the American presence remains the “nerve centre” of broader coalition efforts.

If contractors working on water, electricity, and other basic services were to be withdrawn without a smooth handover to other capable actors, the humanitarian situation could deteriorate rapidly – especially if paired with violent conflict, new waves of displacement, border closures, and fragmenting local governance.

Erdogan recently suggested Turkey could handle stabilisation and reconstruction efforts in the “security zone” through its urban development agency, TOKİ, but also hinted that it would require continued financial support from the anti-IS coalition. However, it seems unlikely that the coalition’s top stabilisation donors – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – would be willing to fund a Turkish presence in the area, given their frosty relationship with Erdogan’s government.

There appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.

It is also unlikely that the Syrian government, which appears to have a very limited economic and institutional capacity in eastern Syria, could immediately take over stabilisation operations in SDF areas that fall under its own control.

As it stands, there appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.

Aid actors themselves say they are busy with contingency planning, but sources informed about the planning told IRIN it’s a struggle given the lack of clarity about the future.

Aid groups are simply faced with too many possible scenarios, sprouting from a host of unresolved questions, including the speed and scope of US withdrawal, the potential for Turkish-American, Turkish-Russian, or Damascus-SDF agreements, and the risk of an IS resurgence, to mention just a few.

On a normal day, aid groups would be begging for funding and resources. But in Syria, they are now desperately demanding something else: information, coordination, and time to adapt.

(TOP PHOTO: Some 10,000 internally displaced people currently live in northeast Syria's al-Areesha camp, which has been hit by heavy rains and flooding. CREDIT: Hisham Arafat/UNHCR)

This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


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