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What Now in SYRIA? How President Trump s decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria has upended that nation's brutal civil war--and what it means for the U.S.

In October, President Trump announced that U.S. troops would leave northeastern Syria, where they'd been helping in the fight against the terrorist group ISIS since 2015. Soon after, Turkish forces launched a long-planned invasion.

The decision to leave, cheered by many of the president's supporters, caused an uproar among Republican and Democratic members of Congress. By pulling out, the U.S. left Kurdish militias in Syria--which had fought side by side with Americans against ISIS--at the mercy of Turkey, which has a separate conflict with the Kurds.

The U.S. pullback also upended Syria's eight-year-old civil war, which had been largely winding down, and gave Syria's dictator a new opening to reassert his power over areas still held by rebels.

Here's what you need to know to understand the conflict in Syria and what the new developments mean for the U.S.

What is the Syrian civil war about?

The Syrian civil war began in 2011 as part of a broader democratic uprising in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. The situation quickly escalated when President Bashar al-Assad responded to demonstrations with a violent crackdown.

The war that evolved out of that uprising has pitted the Assad regime against rebel groups ranging from moderates seeking to oust the longtime dictator to Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS. The war has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced half the country's prewar population of 22 million.

Before the war, Assad ruled ruthlessly and was known for harsh crackdowns against his opponents. Since the conflict began, he's believed to have used chemical weapons against his own people at least twice.

For a while, it looked like Assad would be defeated; in 2013, rebel groups held more than half of Syria's territory. But in 2015, Russia intervened in the conflict, sending troops to prop up Assad. That helped turn the tide, and the Syrian government retook control of much of western Syria. Experts say it's all but certain now that the Assad regime will remain in power.

The devastation in Syria has been massive. Many parts of the country have been reduced to piles of rubble. Basic services like water and electricity are spotty. And beyond the physical destruction, Syria's middle class has been destroyed, its members having fled or fallen into poverty, and many young men are dead or missing.

"It's fairly clear that Assad isn't going anywhere," says Mona Yacoubian, a Syria expert at the United States Institute of Peace, in Washington, D.C. "But it's a ruin of a country that he's now ruling over."

What were U.S. troops doing in Syria?

Despite having called for Assad to step down just months after Syria's civil war began, the U.S. largely stayed on the sidelines of this bloody conflict for the first few years. But the upheaval of the civil war gave Islamic terror groups like ISIS a chance to flourish in Syria.

By 2014, ISIS controlled a huge swath of territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, where it ruled as a radical Islamic state that imposed incredibly harsh punishments and staged public beheadings, including of an American journalist and Western aid workers. It also inspired others to commit terrorist acts in the U.S. and Europe.

The growing threat of ISIS prompted the U.S. to get involved. In 2014, the U.S. began airstrikes against ISIS. About a year later, the first U.S. ground troops arrived in rebel-held areas of eastern Syria with a mission of helping more-moderate Syrian rebel groups push back against ISIS. The number of U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria peaked at about 2,000 in 2018.

The primary American partners in the fight were the Kurds (see "Who Are the Kurds?" facing page). With the help of Kurdish fighters, U.S. forces were able to retake almost all of the territory that had been controlled by ISIS--including about a quarter of Syria. Many Kurdish fighters died alongside U.S. troops in this operation.

In December 2018, President Trump announced that ISIS was defeated and that he wanted to bring U.S. troops home from Syria. In the months that followed, the number of U.S. troops there declined to about 1,000, although experts say ISIS has remained a threat.

Why did President Trump decide to pull most troops out last month?

President Trump has long opposed open-ended military commitments. When he ran for president in 2016, he promised to bring U.S. troops home.

"I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars," the president recently tweeted.

Trump's decision was announced just after a phone call with Turkey's autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. TUrkey considers the Kurdish forces to be a terrorist group and has long wanted the U.S. to end its support for them.

The decision to remove American troops goes against the advice of top military and State Department officials. They wanted those 1,000 U.S. troops in northeast Syria to continue operations against ISIS and to counterbalance the regional influence of Russia and Iran, which are both allied with the Assad regime.

Trump and other administration officials have insisted that the U.S. troop pullback was not intended as a green light for Turkey to go ahead with its military incursion into Syria.

What happened after U.S. troops pulled out?

A lot, and it happened very quickly.

Just a few days later, Hirkey launched an offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Turkish airstrikes and ground troops killed more than 200 Kurds and sent more than 150,000 people fleeing.

Having effectively been abandoned by their U.S. allies and fearing devastation at the hands of their Turkish enemies, the Kurds made a quick deal with the Assad government for support. That deal paved the way for Syrian government forces to return to the country's northeast for the first time in years (see map, p. 9). Russian troops soon followed. Experts say the chaos in eastern Syria has been a boon for the Assad regime, giving it an opening to reassert control over this last portion of the country, and for Russia--both of which are U.S. adversaries.

"It's very important because it helps Assad consolidate his victories," says Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps even more important is the likelihood that the departure of U.S. troops may embolden ISIS. Kurdish fighters had been guarding thousands of captured ISIS fighters, but fighting the Turkish military forced them to take their focus off the ISIS prisoners, who were already trying to regroup, experts say. Amid the fighting, there were reports that hundreds of relatives of ISIS fighters, who'd been held in a detention camp, had escaped.

As the situation grew more chaotic, the U.S. brokered a ceasefire with Turkey. But it remained unclear whether it would hold or what its longer-term effects would be. Kurdish leaders continued to predict disaster.

"There will be ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people from Syria," said Mazlum Kobani, the commander of the Kurdish fighters, "and the American administration will be responsible for it."

What has the reaction been at home?

Almost immediately, President Trump faced harsh criticism from lawmakers of both parties, including many staunch supporters of the president.

"The combination of a U.S. pullback and the escalating Hirkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for our country," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in an opinion essay. He added that recent events had "set back the United States' campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists."

"This is another example of Donald Thimp creating chaos, undermining U.S. interests, and benefiting Russia and the Assad regime," said Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat of Rhode Island.

In the House of Representatives, two-thirds of Republicans joined Democrats to pass a resolution condemning President Trump's troop withdrawal by a vote of 354 to 60.

But many Trump supporters, including those at a Louisiana rally last month, cheered the president for keeping his word. "I'm glad he did it," Katy Burgess of Lake Charles, Louisiana, told the Washington Post. "Get our troops out of harms way."

While the pullout of American troops seems to be popular with Trump's supporters, and it may boost his re-election prospects, the president's critics fear that lasting damage has been done to America's reputation abroad.

"It sends a message that America's word is not very good," says Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. "As the U.S. withdraws, other countries will know they're on their own and try to take matters into their own hands. It just sows more chaos around the world."

With reporting by David E. Sanger and Ben Hubbard of The New York Times.

Who Are the Kurds?

The ethnic group is one of the largest in the world that doesn't have a country of its own

The Kurds are an ethnic group of 25 million to 30 million people without their own nation. They're mostly Sunni Muslims, and they have their own language.

"They're one of the biggest ethnic groups in the world that does not I have a state of their own," says Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

After World War I (1914-18) and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the European powers drew new national boundaries that divided up the territory on which the Kurds had traditionally lived. They suddenly found themselves in four different countries: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran (see map, p. 9).

In Turkey, they're the largest ethnic minority, making up about 20 percent of the population. Turkey has long repressed Kurdish rights and culture; Turkish Kurds are forbidden even from using their language.

Their lack of a homeland and repression in Turkey has led Kurdish separatists to wage a decades-long fight for Kurdish independence against the Turkish government. More than 40,000 people have died in that fight, and the Turkish government considers the Kurdish group leading that struggle to be a terrorist group.

That history is a big part of why Turkey felt threatened by a semiautonomous Kurdish region in Syria, on its southern border--and why it launched its recent offensive, after President Trump decided to pull American troops from the area.

Caption: Young Kurds in Istanbul, Turkey

Caption: Scenes of upheaval (clockwise, from top left): Smoke billows from Ras al Ain, a Syrian town struck by Turkish forces; a Kurdish family flees the fighting outside Ras ai Ain; a car bomb blast in Oamishli; and handing out food to civilians in the border town of Tal Abyad.

Caption: Key players: President Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center), and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right)

Caption: U.S. troops in northern Syria near the Turkish border in October, just days before withdrawing; ISIS fighters in Syria in 2015.

Caption: A Russian soldier in Suran, Syria, in September
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Title Annotation:INTERNATIONAL
Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Nov 18, 2019
Previous Article:THE VAPING CRISIS.

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