Syria Update

Oct 20, 2019
Originally published on October 20, 2019 4:44 pm
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

American bases in Russian hands, Civilians fleeing, Kurdish fighters saying they have been betrayed. What is happening in northern Syria after the U.S. withdrawal is being described as nothing short of chaos, according to new reporting from the region. Overnight, there were reports that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces plan on pulling away from the border with Turkey. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mike Esper said U.S. forces leaving Syria will go to western Iraq. I spoke earlier with Dion Nissenbaum, The Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beirut, about what's been happening in Syria since the U.S. troop withdrawal.

DION NISSENBAUM: Our reporting has shown some sort of remarkable moments where Kurdish families have sought shelter at the main U.S. base in Syria. We got some video of them appealing to them for help and being turned away. A few days after that, as Turkish-backed Syrian fighters moved in, the U.S. had to use Apache helicopters and jet fighters to fly over them to intimidate them from coming closer. And the Kurdish fighters were so spooked that they torched their part of the base and fled. And then the U.S. forces had to leave. And they had to take this remarkable step of calling in airstrikes to destroy an ammo dump and other parts of their own base, which had served as the headquarters for the anti-Islamic State campaign for the last few years. And so our reporting just kind of showed a remarkable - I thought - moment for the U.S. campaign sort of collapsing on itself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You report that we are now seeing Russian forces in these former U.S. bases.

NISSENBAUM: Yeah. This is the other thing that's happening is - as the U.S. has withdrawn from some of these smaller bases that are sort of in the crossfire. They abandoned one at a town called Manbij, which had sort of been the epicenter of U.S. efforts to broker a deal between Turkey and the Kurdish fighters that they fought with against Islamic State. They had to abandon that last week. And soon after they did, Syrian and Russian forces moved in. And a Russian reporter who was traveling with them took this videotape of himself going around and looking at the Krispy Kreme donut boxes and the Pringles that were left. It was another sort of remarkable, you know, symbolic moment about the change in power and in Syria and the region.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Why does that matter? Russia and Iran are already in Syria. How does this withdrawal change the equation?

NISSENBAUM: I think for America, the thousand troops there sort of served as at least a symbolic signal that the U.S. wasn't going to withdraw from the region, that we still have interests there that we were going to use our American forces to try and preserve. And the main one has been fighting Islamic State and making sure that they wouldn't be able to regain a foothold. And that's primarily what the U.S. has been focused on. And sort of all of these aims the U.S. has tried to achieve in Syria, whether it's trying to contain Iran's influence or blunt Russia's interests there, they're all sort of retreating now along with the U.S. forces.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where do things stand now? Does it look like this fighting will continue and this area will become just another contested area in the Syrian civil war?

NISSENBAUM: I think you're potentially seeing the end game here for the war. This has been one of the last sections that's been able to establish some sort of autonomy from Assad. There is supposed to be some conversations this coming week with President Erdogan and President Putin to try and sort of carve up northeastern Syria.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the United States isn't part of that.

NISSENBAUM: That's right. This is, you know, the president - Trump sent out a tweet when he announced this, basically saying we're out of there. Now it's up to Russia, Iran, Turkey, Syria and everybody in the region to figure out how they want to solve this for themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dion Nissenbaum joining us from Lebanon. Thank you so much.

NISSENBAUM: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.