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The Syria Withdrawal’s Other Victims

While coverage has focused on the plight of Kurds, more Syrian locals and NGO workers face arrest and torture in the vacuum Trump created.

Syrian Kurdish and Arab families fled the town of Darbasiyah, on the border between Syria and Turkey, on October 22, 2019. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty)

In Deir Ezzor, the largest city in eastern Syria, on the banks of the Euphrates River, protesters last week chanted and raised signs calling for the downfall of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime. But they also raised U.S. and French flags, hoping the anti-ISIS coalition might keep its forces in the region. “I remember when we were taught at a young age about the French colonialist occupier, when the [Syrian] regime pretended to be a champion of national sovereignty,” one of the protesters, a USAID-funded project manager, Abdul Rahman,* told me. “And now we got to an unprecedented point, in which we ask an occupier to protect us, and we fail to obtain this [protection]. And protect us from whom? From the criminals of our own country.”

The fast-moving events over the past two weeks in northeastern Syria, precipitated by a green light from President Trump for a Turkish invasion, left the Syrian Democratic Forces—a diverse group of factions aligned with the U.S. coalition against ISIS and, on occasion, Damascus—scrambling for a reprieve from the Turkish onslaught. Rather than endure further mass displacement from northern Syria, the SDF chose to strike a deal with the Assad regime, leading to the return of Syrian soldiers to areas the SDF previously controlled. While the plight of minority Kurds in these regions has been well documented, the return of Assad’s forces is also a terrifying prospect for other activists, NGO workers, and fighters—Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians—currently residing in SDF-held areas, which encompass about a third of Syrian land and are home to over 3.2 million people. By abruptly deciding to withdraw from the region, the Trump administration not only exposed thousands of people to the threat of arrest in Assad’s torture dungeons, but also left them precious little time to plan their escape.

“We know the risk [to NGO workers] is not theoretical; it is very concrete, given the regime’s track record,” said Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, the executive director of People Demand Change, an organization providing monitoring and research services for international donors operating in SDF-held areas. “It is incumbent upon the U.S. to protect them and, if necessary, help them leave the country to a safer place.” He proposed rapidly taking money earmarked for projects and using it to relocate endangered staff. “To leave them there,” he added, “is to willfully condemn some of these people to death.”

Since the deal between the Syrian regime and the SDF was first announced on October 13, protests erupted in Arab-majority cities and towns like Deir Ezzor and Tabqa, farther west up the Euphrates. A general strike took place in Manbij, a town in the Aleppo Governorate in northern Syria, where Russian forces now occupy a base once held by the Americans. 

Those protesting the regime’s takeover know what awaits them. Past experience in areas that were formerly outside of regime control in western Syria show that after recapturing opposition territory, Damascus quickly redeploys its secret police. Civilians begin informing on one another to prove their loyalty and gain benefits from the regime. Those suspected of disloyalty are rounded up, jailed, and often tortured to death

Many residents of Tabqa, a city on “Lake Assad” that was once held by ISIS, are wanted for anti-regime activities, including “employees of international NGOs that the regime did not permit operating” in Syria, said Mohab al-Nasser, a local activist from Tabqa. That city and nearby Raqqa are also home to about 200,000 displaced persons who fled regime-controlled areas in the Hama countryside, the Homs desert, and west of the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor. The regime views with suspicion anyone who chooses to escape life under its rule. “The entry of the regime [to Tabqa] will be a catastrophe for these people,” Mohab said.

Some NGO employees, particularly in the former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, had recently returned to Syria with the encouragement of USAID, the foreign-policy development arm of the U.S. government. The Americans, understandably, wanted locals to lead the city’s reconstruction, from rebuilding schools to restoring water infrastructure and setting up volunteerism projects. Many of these locals, with their record of anti-regime activities and clear links to the U.S., are now wanted by the Assad regime. Zaid, an employee for one such USAID-funded NGO, told me that many Raqqa residents wish to see the return of the regime, which they (erroneously) equate with services and stability, “but no one wants the return of the secret police branches. The danger is their return, and people will start writing reports against each other.” Zaid is looking for ways to flee the city.

Other locals, who provided logistical help or acted as interpreters for SDF and coalition troops, face likely arrest and interrogation to extract whatever useful intelligence they possess. The Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, declared on October 10 that anyone who worked with SDF or foreign forces had “committed crimes against” their country. “We won’t accept dialogue with those who had become hostages to foreign forces,” he warned. “There won’t be any foothold for US agents on Syrian territory.” 

The Damascus government’s presence is already being felt on the ground. To halt a planned Turkish attack on Manbij, the SDF invited the Assad regime and Russian forces to enter the city. After two days of patrols throughout the city, “The regime’s soldiers started stopping civilians and asking them for paper,” Abu Nasr, a shop-owner, told me. “We feel like we’re in prison, we can’t go in and out.” 

For most of these newly declared enemies of the regime, there is no easy way out. The sudden return of the regime to some areas—particularly the northern border enclaves of Manbij, Kobanî, and Dêrik—severely limits options for escape. Those who choose to flee generally try to reach Turkish-controlled areas in northern Aleppo or trek farther east to Iraqi Kurdistan. Both trips require escapees to pay smugglers, traverse long distances, and bypass borders. Some simply can not afford the journey.

Over the past four years, the U.S.-led coalition provided protection to northeastern Syria, helped expel ISIS from large swaths of the country, and began to work on stabilizing the areas they liberated. The U.S. earned significant gratitude from this protection. That goodwill is largely gone now, after Trump’s decision to bow to the Turkish invasion. As the U.S. scurries away, bombing its own bases to reduce their usefulness to Russia and Damascus, it has done little to ensure the protection of those wanted by the Assad regime—those who, in many cases, worked closely with the United States to achieve its objectives for the past four years. Abandoning these people to be rounded up into a dictator’s torture dungeons will be another stain on America’s already ignoble record of inaction and acquiescence to mass atrocities in Syria.

*The names of all Syrians interviewed inside Syria for this story have been changed for fear of reprisals from the Assad regime.