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Where does this end? Dangers if US leaves Syria -- or stays

It was not the freshness of the meat or piquancy of the sauce that made the chicken kebab remarkable, but that it was being eaten by a US special operations forces commander on a dusty street in Raqqa, once the self-declared capital of ISIS.

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Nick Paton Walsh, Ghazi Balkiz
Scott McWhinnie (CNN)
WITH US SPECIAL OPERATIONS FORCES IN NORTHERN SYRIA (CNN) — It was not the freshness of the meat or piquancy of the sauce that made the chicken kebab remarkable, but that it was being eaten by a US special operations forces commander on a dusty street in Raqqa, once the self-declared capital of ISIS.

Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard, who runs special operations in Iraq and Syria, bought 20 or so of the kebabs next to the remains of a rusty, tireless water tanker the coalition blew up months earlier, because, said a local trader, an ISIS fighter was manning an antiaircraft gun near it.

Raqqa has changed immeasurably in months, as life rushes back in despite the mines that still litter its rubble, and the unknowable number of bodies that rubble may still contain.

Freshly made bricks are bartered in its streets. Shops are opening. And new police officers in the Raqqa internal security force, numbering in their hundreds, patrol the growing traffic, new badges on their arms and $100 monthly salaries from the US taxpayer in their pockets. Excavators move some ruins; expert US-funded de-miners pick through other parts of it.

It is exhilarating to see Raqqa recover after witnessing its persecution by ISIS and then obliteration as the militants were ousted. But this looks a lot like previous American post-war programs, albeit on a much smaller scale, and raises the question, asked once by David Petraeus in the wake of the Iraq war: Where does this end?

There is no immediate answer. Maj. Gen. Jarrard, who commands special operations in Iraq and Syria and took CNN on a four-day tour of Northern Syria, said: "We've learned lessons the hard way about the wrong way to do this. But we are making sure everything we are doing here is through the Raqqa civil council." He was referring to the loose group of Arab and Kurdish officials the US has helped install as a civilian mayoralty in a city still very much dominated by the Syrian Kurdish fighters who kicked out ISIS.

"We are working to make sure it's the governing body here," added Jarrard, "that are providing the guidance for whatever we try to do to help."

Translation: we might pay and keep order from the sidelines, but this isn't our mess. One of the limited number of State Department-backed civilians we met also helping the reconstruction effort added: "This is by conception a limited operation by design. It is limited geographically, but also not a long-term rebuilding of a destroyed Syria."

The struggle for the US is not to please everyone, but someone. If US forces left immediately after ISIS was routed, their Syrian Kurdish allies who did the fighting would risk encroachment from the nearby Syrian regime or Turkish-backed Syrian rebels to the West.

Syrians who once lived under ISIS would lack basic services, be prey to lawlessness and perhaps even welcome extremists into their midst again.

But stay, and you risk being the lightning rod for criticism about the speed of reconstruction, about water or electricity being connected -- being dragged into the local political mire. And even, at its worst, you risk becoming the targets of an insurgency that chooses to blame the outsider for internal problems. As I heard repeatedly from Americans on this trip: We've seen this movie before.

A staggering new development

But this time it has a labyrinthine plot few can keep track of. And the complexities risk providing more reasons to stay. One night we were with the Americans when a base they manned with the Syrian Kurds near the city of Deir Ezzor came under sustained attack.

It caused grave concern at their headquarters as the attackers were Syrian regime forces, using tanks, and operating in an area where Russian military monitors are present to regularly speak to the US-led coalition and prevent accidental clashes.

The attack thrust eight kilometers into territory held by the Syrian Kurds, and appeared to target an oilfield nearby that -- before ISIS seized it and it was seized back by the Syrian Kurds -- once brought the regime considerable revenue.

After the regime-loyal tanks fired at and got within a kilometer of American troops, the Americans say, they brought in a C130 gunship and warplanes, killing over a hundred assailants, they say, and causing the rest to flee.

It was a staggering development that kept coalition HQ up all night, and perhaps the first time regime-loyal forces openly and knowingly fired upon American troops. Also, the US forces struggle to believe such an attack could be launched without Russian knowledge, as the Russian military has long known of the US presence at the base.

The Russian ministry of defense later issued a statement suggesting that the armored, 500-strong force the Americans observed was in fact a local Syrian militia hunting down the source of mortar attacks by ISIS fighters on nearby villages, and that they strayed into Syrian Kurdish territory without Russian military knowledge.

Commander Hassan (he declined to give his family name) of the Syrian Kurds, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) when they sometimes contain Arab fighters, said he had been in contact with the Russian military for days beforehand as they noticed a troop buildup. "They said we don't know what you are talking about and that they don't have any plans to attack the SDF, even at two minutes before the clashes started when I was on the phone with them."

Later the same Russian monitor said the fighters had moved without their knowledge, and then called back one more time. "He asked for a ceasefire and for things to calm so the problem could be solved," said Hassan, but also partly so casualties could be collected after the US strikes.

The fighting lasted from 10pm until 5am. "It's strange," said Hassan.

"Russia is a great power, and any move from the regime, or any other force that's aligned with it, Russia knows about it. They bear responsibly for yesterday."

He went on, more grimly: "The war that is raging in Syria is not just a Syrian internal war. Turkey is interfering, Saudi Arabia is interfering, Iran is interfering, Russia is interfering, coalition countries are interfering. We can say that this is WWIII without nuclear weapons...all on Syrian land."

Peace harder to win than war

The US mission is given added complexity by the role of Turkey, which sees the SDF as allied to Turkish Kurds proscribed as terrorists by Turkey and -- to add further confusion -- the US.

Turkey has launched a full-scale invasion of one Syrian Kurdish enclave to the far northwest, Afrin, and sent Syrian Arab rebels that they have armed toward the SDF on a frontline near Manbij that the US also patrols.

So, oddly, these US forces find themselves on the opposite side of one frontline with a NATO ally, and the other with NATO's main adversary, Russia. All the while, they are trying to remain focused on the initial goal of defeating ISIS, which, one US official told me, sent "physical things" and people from Raqqa at the height of its so-called Caliphate, to attack the West.

Historians like to remark that the peace is harder to win than the war before it, yet sadly -- in the savage sixth year of Syria's civil conflict -- there is little peace to govern, and the US is just beginning to sense the possible scope of its limited military entanglement in this hideous internecine battle.

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