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A cruel withdrawal

The departure of U.S. forces from Syria allows Turkish forces to target civilians with atrocities—even during a U.S.-brokered cease-fire

Free Burma Ranger medics retrieve a wounded SDF soldier near Ras al-Ain, Syria, on Oct. 21. Free Burma Rangers

A cruel withdrawal
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“There is no cease-fire here,” said Dave Eubank, director of Free Burma Rangers, one of the few U.S.-based aid groups working near the front lines in northeast Syria. Three days into a five-day cease-fire brokered by Vice President Mike Pence, bombs and artillery fire rained on the city of Ras al-Ain in defiance of the agreement. Eyewitnesses like Eubank reported widespread atrocities, including alleged use of chemical weapons, contradicting assurances from Washington and Ankara of creating a “safe zone” inside Syria.

“We are taking heavy machine gun fire as we move forward to find SDF wounded,” said Eubank. His group of medics, among them Karen Christians from Burma, have worked alongside soldiers fighting ISIS in Iraq and in a final assault against the militant group in Syria earlier this year. Reached by phone a mile south of Ras al-Ain, Eubank said his group faced Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters on three sides.

Attacks from advancing Turkish forces intent on creating a buffer zone inside Syria have been persistent. They targeted the SDF, which has controlled the area since establishing a semi-autonomous area in 2016 populated with Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, and Arab Muslims. That zone was upended on Oct. 6 in a White House announcement by President Donald Trump withdrawing troops from Syria.

With Trump’s go-ahead, Turkey invaded Syria starting the next day, and it has relied on proxies from the Free Syrian Army and Syrian National Army militias to battle the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Those militias—first organized under defectors from the Syrian army—have grown into armies of transnational jihadists, funded and trained by Turkey since 2016, and largely composed of al-Qaeda militants. Working in tandem with Turkish air and ground forces, the militias overwhelmed the battle-hardened SDF, which already has seen 11,000 soldiers killed in U.S.-led coalition battles against ISIS.

In a bit of foreign-policy jiujitsu, the administration condemned Turkey for an invasion Trump had welcomed. But the five-day cease-fire agreement between Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed their NATO partnership and acknowledged Turkey’s concerns about protecting its border with Syria. Kurdish forces, while staking out a claim for control in Syria’s northeast, have respected that border and haven’t made cross-border incursions. Turkey’s army has been heavily fortifying the border for the past year.

Details of the cease-fire agreement weren’t discussed with the SDF, according to commanding general Mazloum Abdi. But SDF agreed to the pullout from two cities, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad, while Turkey agreed to pause its offensive and pledged to “ensure safety and well-being of residents,” in the language of the cease-fire agreement. Instead, Turkey repeatedly struck civilian targets, earning accusations of war crimes.

Turkish air forces bombed the hospital in Ras al-Ain and numerous Kurdish and Christian neighborhoods. In one village, residents dug 12 bodies from bomb wreckage. Bodies, visible in photos seen by WORLD, were charred beyond recognition.

The Turkey-backed militias executed civilians, including two café owners in the city.

Also near Ras al-Ain (“Sere Kaniye” in Kurdish), Turkish militias blew up four ambulances trying to ferry wounded civilians. From the ambulances they captured four medics and executed them on the road, according to multiple sources, wounding also five other medical workers.

For days after Ras al-Ain and other towns fell to Turkish forces, the Free Syrian Army blocked access to those wounded and killed, prompting Eubank and others to call on Turkey to open a humanitarian corridor. That opening came briefly on Oct. 19, as Turkish forces allowed a medical convoy—including International Red Cross, Kurdish Red Crescent, and Free Burma Rangers—to enter the city and evacuate 37 wounded.

In under two weeks, nearly 300,000 residents had fled the October fighting, and dozens of Christian and Yazidi villages have been emptied and destroyed in the Kurdish attacks.

The Christians, Kurds, and Yazidis have seen this drill before: Unprovoked, Turkish forces crossed into Syria near Afrin in January 2018, attacking SDF outposts. The Turks burned a church and moved Arab militia members into homes owned by Christians. About 167,000 residents took flight, most never to return, many witnessing atrocities.

What they did not see: attacks involving chemical weapons. Doctors at Al-Sha’ab Hospital in Hasakah report potentially 20 civilian and military victims with “burns of unknown origin” after a Turkish warplane bombed a civilian convoy. The doctors allowed journalists to circulate photos of the burn victims—several of them children—to solicit help from international monitors and experts.

Two leading experts said they believe white phosphorus is the culprit, a substance that burns from the inside out and reacts to skin moisture, so that water cannot neutralize it. Using white phosphorus-loaded munitions to target civilians could constitute a war crime.

Turkey has denied it deployed chemical weapons, but UN chemical weapons inspectors announced on Oct. 18 they were investigating the cases.

Russian forces began arriving by plane in Qamishli on Oct. 21, as U.S. forces had pulled out. An agreement reached on Oct. 22 likely paves the way for Russia further disarming the once-U.S. allied Kurds.

Some American gunners rode out atop their military vehicles wearing badges of the Kurdish militias they had trained and allied with for three years. But some bystanders pelted U.S. vehicles with tomatoes, and others carried protest signs. One read: “To the U.S. Army, tell your children that the children of the Kurds were killed by the Turks and we did nothing to protect them.”

—This story has been updated to reflect the Oct. 22 agreement between Turkey and Russia.

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine’s first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.



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