Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from northern Syria, a trio of autocrats is dividing the country up between them. But with Putin, Erdogan and Assad now having the say in the region, dangers are on the horizon for Europe. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
When a global power withdraws, it apparently doesn’t leave a whole lot behind: some sand-colored tents with camouflage nets in the desert, three red-and-white radio masts, a few toilets, some ice chests and oil barrels, and a diesel engine that’s still running. That’s what the former United States military base looks like near the city of Manbij in northern Syria.
The Americans are gone. And it didn’t take long for a new master to arrive. The Russians arrived the day after the Americans left the base.
It’s Tuesday of this week and armored vehicles with Russian flags flapping in the wind are rolling toward Manbij. One of the first to enter the abandoned U.S. base is Oleg Blochin, a stocky, bearded man wearing a black baseball cap.
Blochin isn’t a soldier, he’s a reporter for the pro-Kremlin Russian wire service Anna News. In a video he uploaded to his Facebook page, he looks like a cheerful tourist who has accidently stumbled into a war. He is apparently embedded with a unit of Russian mercenaries tasked by President Vladimir Putin with preventing Turkish troops from becoming established here. Blochin is, if you will, the advance team.
In the video, you can see him, camera in hand, walking past a black trash bin full of cola cans. He moves toward the entrance of a tent and steps inside. There’s a can of chicken breast on the shelf. His foot strikes something on the ground — a football. Other videos recorded at the military base show a Gameboy near a few boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts and a package of Pringles. There’s a plate on a table that’s still half full of food.
“Now we’re going to the American soldiers’ quarters,” says Blochin. As his camera pans, several cots with blankets still on them come into view, making it look as though the Americans had just left to go out on patrol. “The air conditioning is still on,” Blochin says. “It’s hot outside, cool inside.”
The Americans didn’t have much time to leave the camp. A Pentagon spokesman told Newsweek magazine that they tried to take as much equipment as possible, but the rest had to be left behind. Any “sensitive equipment” that couldn’t be moved was destroyed, the spokesman said.
Rarely has a single act in global politics triggered such a rapid chain of events as the U.S. pullout from Syria last week. Only hours after the Americans began leaving, Turkish soldiers marched into the northeast of the civil war-torn country. This prompted the Kurdish YPG militia, which had previously controlled the region jointly with the Americans, to call for help from Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his most important patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This marks the beginning of what is likely to be the last, decisive round after eight years of this brutal civil war. And even if the situation on the ground seems chaotic, the Turkish military has thus far limited its operations to the 100-kilometer stretch between the cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Meanwhile, Syrian soldiers have taken up positions in many places along the Turkish-Syrian border, flanked by Russia. And it would be extremely dangerous for the Turks to attack them.
Such is the current situation in Syria: The Americans have pulled out, the Turks have gone in, the Kurds have fled and the Russians are trying to slow the Turks’ advance. And the dictator in Damascus must be pleased, because it has now become even more likely that, with Moscow’s backing, the man responsible for what is perhaps the greatest mass murder of the 21st century will soon have all of Syria back under his control. What does this portend for Syria, the Kurds and Europe? Will the Islamic State (IS) terror militia take advantage of the chaos to regroup?
Initially, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that he intended to continue with his offensive, no matter the cost — until the last Kurdish fighter was driven out of the border area. It even looked as if Erdogan was prepared to risk a split with NATO over the invasion. In response, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to “destroy” the Turkish economy if Turkish soldiers pushed deeper into Syria.
Following a meeting with Erdogan on Thursday evening in Ankara, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made the surprise announcement that Washington and Turkey had agreed on a cease-fire, with Turkey now pledging to give the YPG 120 hours to vacate the border area. This is likely to temporarily ease tensions in Turkish-American relations, but it is unlikely to change the situation on the ground much, given that the Kurds probably won’t completely withdraw from the area. But that didn’t stop Trump from touting the cease-fire deal as an “incredible outcome” that would save the lives of “millions of people.”
Dozens of civilians have been killed in the latest battles, and around 100,000 have lost homes and are now fleeing the violence. Might Europe be facing a new refugee crisis if, as Erdogan has threatened to do several times in the past, Turkey retracts on its deal with the EU and allows Syrian refugees in Turkey to continue their journey onward to Europe?
One thing is already becoming increasingly clear: A changing of the guard is taking place in Syria. The West has surrendered. The Europeans and the Americans have repeatedly condemned the atrocities in Syria, but they have done little to prevent them. Meanwhile, the despots — Assad, Erdogan and Putin — are emerging as the victors. And the consequences will be felt far beyond the Middle East.
The End of a Global Power
The disaster all began with a phone call between Trump and Erdogan on Sunday, October 6. Afterward, the White House sent out a skimpy, six-sentence press release stating that Turkey would march into northern Syria and U.S. troops would withdraw from the area and not be part of the operation. In other words: The West was pulling out and leaving Erdogan to do whatever he wants.
There are competing versions of what took place during that phone call. Trump’s critics claim the U.S. president was hoodwinked by Erdogan because the Turkish president presented the invasion as being inevitable, leaving Trump with no alternative, according to this interpretation, but to accept it.
Another version of events is that Trump’s advisers had asked him to implore the Turkish president not to invade and to threaten massive sanctions if his troops did march into Syria. But that Trump did nothing, or very little, of the sort.
Instead, say critics, the president deviated from the script and surprised his advisers by pledging to Erdogan he would withdraw American soldiers from the border area. Up to that point, the U.S. units had served as a protective buffer between the Kurdish militia and Turkey.
Shortly after the call, a frenzy broke out in Washington. Trump’s announcement surprised and horrified European allies, including France and Germany. Members of the Republican Party even denounced the 180-degree about-face as a “betrayal” of the Kurds. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most loyal backers, warned that the Syria decision was “a disaster in the making.” Later, he would be even blunter. “The worst thing any Commander in Chief can do is to give land back to the enemy that was taken through blood and sacrifice,” he tweeted. And: “I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making, and I hope President Trump will adjust his thinking.”
The agitation among Trump’s closest allies is reflective of the enormous impact of his decision. Trump has touched on one of the paradoxes of American foreign policy: On the one hand, Washington exploited the Kurds for several years as helpers in the fight against the IS terrorist militia in Syria, backing them with money, weapons and military assistance and taking for granted the deaths of 11,000 Kurdish fighters in battles against the Islamists. On the other, the U.S. was seeking to deepen relations with NATO partner Turkey and cozy up to Erdogan, even though Ankara considers YPG to be a terrorist group.
Trump hasn’t shown any indication that he thinks there was anything wrong with his decision. He boasted about the withdrawal of the U.S. troops the same morning of his phone conversation with Erdogan. “The United States was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago,” he tweeted. Islamic State has been defeated, and “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars.”
‘America First’ Indeed
The Syrian decision is an example of just how domestically driven Trump’s foreign policy is. “America First” was a key promise of his 2016 election campaign and, to the cheers of his fans, he has condemned the deployment of the U.S. military and ridiculed the foreign and security policies of his predecessors in the White House as “stupid” and “expensive.” Trump played on the feeling, widespread among many Americans, that military deployments abroad don’t do much more than cost human lives and a lot of money.
It is becoming clear that he plans to deploy that strategy again during his re-election campaign. And it may turn out to be relatively easy for him to peddle the withdrawal from Syria to his supporters as a success. But the decision also shows what Trump is capable of now that there is virtually no one in the White House or in his administration to oppose his isolationist bent.
Trump had already ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria one before. Even then, last December, his argument was that IS had been defeated, making the ongoing U.S. presence there superfluous. Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned in protest and Trump postponed the pullout — at least for the time being.
A sense of bitterness permeated Mattis’ resignation letter, which also offered a scathing critique of U.S. foreign policy under Trump. In it, Mattis wrote that the president has “the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.” In other words: If Trump wanted to plunge the Middle East into chaos, then he was the wrong man.
Internally, it is said that Mattis repeatedly warned against abandoning the Kurds in northern Syria, and in his letter, the general explicitly reminded the president of the importance of alliances for America. “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” He continued that the U.S. “cannot protect our interests” without “maintaining strong alliances and showing respect for those allies.”
The general’s anger and the negative headlines his resignation created for the president apparently had some impact on Trump. John Bolton, who was still the president’s national security adviser at the time, succeeded in dissuading Trump from his Syria decision. Bolton warned Trump strongly that an American withdrawal from Syria could result in the resurgence of Islamic State.
With Bolton now gone, Trump has surrounded himself with like-minded ideologues and sycophants in both the White House and Pentagon. Although they should know better, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and new National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien have shown little interest in trying to rein in their stubborn boss.
The result is that there is only one force on the Republican side that is still seeking to contain Trump: GOP foreign policy experts in Congress. They are people like Lindsey Graham, but also Representative Liz Cheney, the influential daughter of Dick Cheney, who served as vice president during the administration of George W. Bush. Since Trump announced his decision to pull out, she and other Republicans have been protesting the president’s move almost daily. “Withdrawing U.S. forces from northern Syria is a catastrophic mistake,” Cheney said, expressing her anger in a statement. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution rebuking Trump for his decision to pull American troops out of Syria by a majority of 354 to 60. A total of 129 Republicans voted against their own president.
It appears that Trump underestimated the headwinds he would face within his own party. His reaction — a mixture of defiance and knee-jerkisms — has only served to make his foreign policy appear more erratic and a once-proud world power even more ridiculous. In a fit of rage, he called on Erdogan to cease fighting in Syria and announced he would slap fresh sanctions on the country, including an increase of punitive tariffs on Turkish steel to 50 percent. At the same time, though, he has sought to justify his decision to withdraw by distancing himself from the Kurds.
Speaking from the Oval Office on Wednesday, Trump said the Kurds are perfectly capable of defending themselves. “They know how to fight.” Besides, he said, the Kurds are “no angels.” He then repeated himself: “As I said, they are not angels.”
It all seemed to come to a climax with the bizarre letter Trump sent to Erdogan last week, three days after his decision to pull out. The letter is only a few lines long and it is written in the Twitter-friendly vernacular that has become Trump’s hallmark. “Let’s work out a good deal!” the president writes to Erdogan. Don’t be a fool,” he writes, before closing it with: “I will call you later.”
For Trump, the Syrian crisis may be less threatening than the Ukrainian scandal, but general doubts about his sanity continue to grow.
Even the Wall Street Journal, owned by media czar and Trump loyalist Rupert Murdoch, fired a clear warning shot at the president. Trump should be careful, the paper’s editorial board wrote in an op-ed. More and more Republicans “are questioning his judgement as Commander in Chief.” It adds: “With impeachment looming, he can’t afford to alienate more friends.”
A dinner at the Élysée Palace, in Paris’ chic 8th Arrondissement: German Chancellor Angela Merkel likely has less appealing events on her schedule than this one. Still, the meal she shared with French President Emmanuel Macron last Sunday was likely a frustrating one.
European leaders have been calling their German and French counterparts nonstop in recent days to consult with them about Erdogan’s march into Syria. The Europeans are opposed to the actions taken by Turkey, and they are worried about deaths, mass displacement and the possibility of a new refugee crisis. But they either lack the will or the ability to do anything to counter Erdogan.
Merkel spent an hour on the phone with Erdogan trying to coax the Turkish president to abandon his campaign against the Kurds, but it didn’t help. It was, once again, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn who openly admitted: “As Europeans, we are not in a position to stop this.” There is “no European country that will now send soldiers into this corridor,” he told DER SPIEGEL.
The Europeans have spent years discussing stronger cooperation in foreign and security policy, including a flexible deployment force, joint armed forces and arms procurement. But when they are called upon to act in the interest of stability, as is now the case in Syria, they are not even able to agree on a joint political stance, let alone take any action. Instead, they leave it to others to get their hands dirty — which is one reason why the criticism of Trump feels so hypocritical this time around.
France is withdrawing its special forces, 200 elite troops, from Syria. And EU member states haven’t even managed to agree on a coordinated stance toward Erdogan. Turkey is the source of conflict for them, but the country is also a NATO ally and, at least on paper, a candidate for membership in the EU. The country is also home to more than 3 million Syrian refugees, which Ankara is hosting with considerable financial support from the EU. With Erdogan threatening to pull out of the refugee deal, Europe faces a possible return of the predicament it found itself in back in 2015. Where would all those people go?
We’re now seeing just how vulnerable to blackmail Europe made itself by leaving it to the Turks to come up with a solution for the refugee problem. Whenever Erdogan feels people are being too critical of him, he can always threaten to open the borders to the EU. Erdogan has justified his invasion of Syria in part by saying he wants to offer Syrian refugees a safe home again. The dilemma is that Europe has little it can do to counter him.
On Monday, the 28 EU foreign ministers agreed to halt new weapons exports to Turkey. But they failed to push through a general arms embargo. It’s also highly improbable that the EU will impose sanctions against Ankara, due in part to the fact that Erdogan maintains the best of relations with, for example, the Poles and the Hungarians.
Annalena Baerbock, the co-chair of Germany’s Green Party, considers the arms export ban a “farce.” Instead of standing up to Erdogan, she argues, the German government has been too soft on him for too long and points out that Germany has considerable leverage over Turkey through its economic ties with the country. “It should stop safeguarding Turkey’s economic activities by providing investment guarantees,” she says.
So far, Erdogan has deflected any criticism from the West. It’s not Turkey, but countries like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that are massacring civilians, he claims. After German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas rebuked the Turkish government for its Syrian offensive, Erdogan called him a dilettante. “If you knew anything about politics, you wouldn’t be talking like that,” the Turkish president said.
In the foreseeable future, it is clear, the power vacuum left behind by the Americans in Syria won’t be filled by the Europeans. It will be filled by others. The Russians above all.
Putin’s Ingenious Strategy
On that fatal Sunday, when Trump spoke with Erdogan on the phone and gave Turkey the green light for an invasion, Putin was on a hiking trip in Siberia. He had something to celebrate: It was the day before his 67th birthday.
Following Trump’s capitulation, Putin no longer has much need to get involved in the Syrian conflict; everything is going according to plan as it is. Through clever diplomacy and scrupulous warfare, he has managed to keep Assad in power. And now that the U.S. has withdrawn, Russia is the last remaining major power present in Syria. That leaves Putin in a position where he can simply sit back and play off the remaining actors in the conflict zone against each other.
Whereas the U.S. managed to infuriate its own allies in Syria, Russia has been able to achieve just the opposite over the years. Putin has long since developed strong ties to Assad and Iran, but now, the Turkish leadership is also growing closer to Moscow. And the Kurds, meanwhile, have no other choice following the Turkish invasion than to pin their hopes on Russian intervention. It is up to Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a tactician who is as brilliant as he is shameless, to decide who gets control of what regions in Syria.
Over the course of the war, Putin and Lavrov never put all their eggs in the Assad basket, even helping out Turkey and the Kurds on occasion. In early August, at the 13th round of the Astana Process in the capital of Kazakhstan, Moscow’s negotiators laid the groundwork for the decisive move. The talks proceeded according to Russia’s will and desire, with Iran and Turkey present at the meeting and the U.S. and Europe absent.
A conference participant, who did not want to be quoted by name, told DER SPIEGEL that during the meeting in Astana, Russia pressured Turkey to finally carry out its long-threatened invasion of the Kurdish areas in northern Syria. Putin’s goal is clear, said the participant: “The Russians are doing all they can to pull Turkey out of NATO.”
It’s not the success of Turkey’s invasion that is in Russia’s interest, but its failure. Putin and Lavrov, though, frequently take the less obvious approach — and over the past week, things could hardly have gone better. In contrast to Erdogan, Putin anticipated that once the Americans withdrew and the Turks attacked, the Kurds would turn to Assad. And the area under Assad’s control has suddenly become much greater as a result. There aren’t just lucrative oil wells in northern Syria, but also hundreds of thousands of Syrians over whom Assad once again has control, without having had to fire a single shot.
On October 13, the two senior-most Kurdish military leaders signed a “memorandum of understanding” that essentially amounted to a capitulation. It confirmed that the Syrian army would be returning to northern Syria, defined several zones of responsibility and guaranteed that the region would henceforth pay homage to Assad.
It is a bizarre document — so much so that after its existence became known, the Kurdish leadership spent an entire day denying its authenticity. It also has nothing to say about two vital questions: What will happen with the YPG, the military arm of the Kurds? And will Assad’s secret service, an agency that has been little more than a death squad in recent years, be returning to the Kurdish areas?
According to the statement of one Kurdish functionary, Damascus has told the Kurds that they will be allowed to hold on to their YPG units provided they soon join the fight against thelast remaining rebel stronghold in Idlib. That is likely something the Kurds won’t be opposed to, given the Kurdish resentment at the fact that the rebels fought alongside the Turks during their advance into the Kurdish areas.
And Putin can continue with his finely tuned and highly flexible approach, one that involves talking with all parties involved, exerting pressure when needed and taking advantage of animosities — and ultimately emerging with control over the victor. It is a strategy that has allowed Russia to increase its control over Assad’s fiefdom step by step. Russian companies have taken over contracts for natural gas fields and for ports, and they have managed to elbow the Iranians aside. Assad is becoming Moscow’s puppet dictator.
Not only that, but Erdogan has also become dependent on Putin’s goodwill.
Erdogan is a gifted populist and can rally his supporters like no other, but there is one thing the Turkish president isn’t good at: diplomacy. And nowhere is his overconfidence coming back to haunt him as it is in the Syrian conflict. Erdogan and Assad were once friends and even vacationed together on the Mediterranean coast in Turkey. But in the 2011 Arab Spring, Erdogan saw an opportunity to take on a leadership role in the region and armed select Islamist groups for their fight against the Assad regime. For years, militia fighters were able to freely move back and forth across the border from Syria to Turkey.
Erdogan’s imperialist ambitions, described by observers as “Neo-Osmanism” or “Neo-Ottomanism,” were never fulfilled. Instead, the Turkish president was forced to stand by and watch as Assad consolidated his power with the help of Russia and Iran. So, Erdogan revamped his Syria policy: He was no longer focused on getting rid of Assad. His main goal became that of destroying the YPG.
The U.S. values the YPG as an important ally in the fight against Islamic State. Erdogan, by contrast, sees the militia — not inaccurately — as the Syrian offshoot of the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which spent years in armed conflict against the Turkish state. Erdogan has repeatedly stated over the years that he would not accept a Kurdish state under YPG/PKK leadership as a neighbor. So, when Trump withdrew American troops from the region, Erdogan saw his opportunity and Turkish troops began their advance.
The Turkish military has already been involved in two battles in Syria, the first being the 2016 fight against Islamic State in Jarabulus, while the second was against the YPG in Afrin. But the current operation, dubbed “Peace Spring,” is by far the most risky and consequential. Erdogan wants to establish a 500-kilometer-long and around 30-kilometer-deep buffer zone stretching from the Euphrates River in the west to the Iraqi border in the east. That is essentially the region from which YPG fighters will have to withdraw if they choose to adhere to the plan agreed to between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Erdogan. According to Ankara’s plan, 10 cities and 140 villages are to be established in the area, where up to 2 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey could be settled. The area is to be secured by the self-styled National Army, a militia alliance made up of fighters from the former Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups.
With the offensive against the Kurds, Erdogan has largely isolated Turkey internationally. But he doesn’t seem to care. In Ankara, it is said that Erdogan is even willing to accept the possible negative consequences for the Turkish economy that could result from “Operation Peace Spring.”
Ever since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a stinging defeat in Istanbul elections in June, Erdogan has been under domestic pressure he has never before felt. Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, dominated the political agenda for months and leading AKP officials are even preparing to establish their own party. The invasion of Syria has granted Erdogan a bit of a respite. War, after all, is good for autocrats, and large parts of the country have now united behind Erdogan. Even opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu says that he now recognizes just a single political party: the Turkish flag. At an appearance in Turkish parliament this week, Erdogan was welcomed with a standing ovation.
Whether Erdogan’s invasion proves successful is not entirely up to him. Now that YPG and the Assad regime have allied against Turkey, the future of “Operation Peace Spring” will be decided less on the battlefield and more in Damascus — and, by extension, in Moscow.
According to Erdogan confidants, the Turkish president was surprised by the deal between the Kurds and Assad. But he knows that without Putin’s support for his activities in Syria, there is little he can do.
Next week, Erdogan is planning to head to Moscow for talks with Putin. Ankara is hoping that Putin will at least give Erdogan a small piece of Syrian territory as a “buffer zone.” But if the Russian president insists that control over all of Syrian territory be returned to Assad, Erdogan could be in store for a humiliation: Because he won’t be interested in sending his military into a hopeless conflict against Syrian, Russian and Iranian troops, he would likely have no other choice than to put his tail between his legs and withdraw from Syria.
The Betrayed People
The ups and downs in the life of Mazloum Kobani are inseparably intertwined with the fate of the Kurds. So tightly, in fact, that hardly anyone knows his given name of Ferhat Abdi Sahin anymore, just his nom de guerre of Mazloum Kobani, a name he chose because he comes from the Syrian-Kurdish city of the same name. Kobani is now in his 50s. As a young man in Syria, he got to know Abdullah Öcalan, the co-founder of the PKK, a man who Kobani calls his friend. Today, Kobani is commander of the Syrian branch of the PKK, the YPG. Like many Kurds, Kobani dreams of establishing a Kurdish state in the Middle East.
Together with the U.S., his militia was successful in defeating Islamic State in Syria, and Kobani took advantage of the situation to conquer roughly a third of the territory belonging to Syria. The Kurds also established control of cities and municipalities like Manbij, the population of which is primarily Arab. Human rights organizations accused him of forcibly recruiting underage fighters, but the YPG was able to establish an autonomous region, called Rojava, that was relatively stable and within which women and minorities enjoyed more rights than elsewhere in Syria.
With the Turkish invasion in northern Syria, the existence of Rojava is now threatened, and Kobani is doing what he can to save whatever he can. He negotiated the deal with the Assad regime and Russia on behalf of the Kurds, despite having been locked away and tortured in Syrian prisons on more than one occasion himself and despite knowing full well that the regime will never accept Kurdish autonomy. “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people,” he wrote in a recent op-ed for Foreign Policy.
According to the International Organization for Migration, some 190,000 people in northeastern Syria are already fleeing the Turkish advance. And the routes they are taking are just as convoluted as the war itself. Some want to make their way to Iraq, but most are heading to southern Rojava, where the situation is currently a bit quieter.
Sultana Suleyman, 75, is sitting at a gas station in the middle of the plain together with her nine-person family and dozens of bags, sacks and suitcases. They are waiting for a bus to take them to Damascus. Back home to the dictatorship that has treated the Kurds as second-class citizens for decades. But, she complains: “Erdogan’s terrorists are bombing us!”
The Return of the “Caliphs”
In his most recent audio message, circulated in September from his unknown hideout, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the terrorist militia Islamic State, issued an order to his followers. They are, he demanded, to free those jihadis who are being held by the Kurds. “Your brothers and sisters, do your utmost to free them and tear down the walls restricting them,” he urged.
In the West, few took the appeal seriously at the time. IS appeared to have been defeated after losing its final stronghold of Baghouz in spring and its fighters are either all dead, have fled or are sitting in Kurdish prison facilities in northeastern Syria. The YPG is thought to have captured some 80,000 IS followers, including around 11,000 fighters and more than 70,000 women and children, many of them from abroad, including from Germany, France, Tunisia and elsewhere.
Now, though, the confusion of the suddenly renewed fighting could make Baghdadi’s appeal reality. Indeed, those imprisoned have largely been left to their own devices, with their Kurdish guards having headed to the front or fled the Turkish bombardment. That, at least, was the situation in the Ayn Issa camp, where around 800 women and children were being held. Two liberated IS women told DER SPIEGEL: “There was an announcement from the guards over the loudspeakers that they were no longer responsible for the camp. Then they jumped into their cars and drove away.” The prisoners, the women said, then called relatives or human traffickers to come pick them up. The former camp leader says that 40 families were willingly transferred to another camp further to the south. “And every day, others are picked up as they wander through the area,” he says. But stories of an insurrection in the Ayn Issa camp, with prison walls being destroyed by grenades and hundreds of fighters liberated: All that is just PR from Kurdish politicians. Ayn Issa is only surrounded by barbed wire and there were no men held in the camp.
Currently, though, the greatest danger is facing those female prisoners who have long since renounced Islamic State. A German prisoner confirms what Charlie Winter, a terrorism and insurgency expert with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) in London, has reported: Namely that in the largest camp of al-Hawl, a radical faction among the female prisoners has been keeping a list of “defectors” who are to be executed. A few days ago, in fact, the child of a supposed turncoat was murdered. “I am praying that the guards stay,” a German prisoner told DER SPIEGEL via WhatsApp. “Otherwise, the others will come and cut us to pieces or light our tents on fire.”
IS remains one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world, with assets estimated by UN experts to be has high as $300 million. And Baghdadi hasn’t given up his dream of establishing an Islamic State “caliphate.” He is apparently hoping that once his fighters are freed from prison, they will regroup and ultimately launch another offensive.
The terror chief also seems convinced that time is on the side of the jihadists. In an April video, his only one in five years, Baghdadi advised his followers to wage a war of attrition from the underground, with the aim of exhausting the enemy in preparation for the decisive jihadist offensive.
Victory of the Autocrats
Already, it is clear that even an end to violence in Syria will not mean that a solution has been found. It will merely result in generations of hatred, devastation and waiting for revenge. Huge sections of Homs, Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus have been little more than rubble for years now. Half of the country’s population has fled, around half a million people have lost their lives and it is estimated that Syria’s gross domestic product has plunged to just a quarter of what it was prior to the violence. Reconstruction would cost hundreds of billions, a sum that — according to Moscow’s wishes — is to come from the West.
And the horrific conclusion is still to come. Three million people live in Idlib, the last remaining rebel bastion. Fighting there in the coming months is likely to form the bloody finale of a war in which Assad and Putin have already broken all the taboos — from the use of chemical weapons and the targeted bombing of hospitals to the starving out of entire cities. The lethargy of the international community has given Assad no cause for restraint.
Just as he has chosen violence over reform from the very beginning — because every negotiation, every concession would have meant an erosion of his power — reconstruction and reconciliation are not in his interest either. Those who don’t completely submit themselves to his regime are not welcome to return. The hopes of some European politicians that Assad can be convinced to reform with money is naïve. Even as his regime was facing ruin, it made no concessions, preferring instead to unleash terror to escalate the conflict.
The reasons for the 2011 protests — oppression, and corruption — haven’t gone away. On the contrary. And the fears of the people have only grown. And that is the key to Assad’s power. He must foment that fear if he wants to domineer his people.
Under Trump’s leadership, the Americans have abandoned their middleman role in the Middle East. And the Russians have filled the resulting vacuum. Rulers from Ankara to Cairo will carefully consider with whom they will cooperate in the future. Putin, Assad and Erdogan will establish the postwar framework in Syria. And there will only be room for those of whom the three despots approve.
By Christian Esch, Julia Amalia Heyer, Katrin Kuntz, Roland Nelles, Maximilian Popp, Christoph Reuter, Raniah Salloum, Christoph Scheuermann and Severin Weiland