When we hear about a significant world event–an environmental catastrophe, the passage of a new law, a scientific breakthrough–we're fortunate to have a network of people we can turn to for clarification and understanding. Many are experts in their fields, and they help us digest what's going on.
When we heard the U.S. would be abruptly leaving Syria this fall, we wanted to get a first-hand account of what was actually happening over there, and the events that led up to it. Depending on what news source you listen to, it can seem like there are a lot of conflicting messages. We first turned to Ben Anderson, who worked with us earlier this season on our War Is Hell messaging. Being the ever-modest person he is, Ben deferred to Washington-D.C.-based journalist Mike Giglio who he thought would be a better candidate to sound in on our inquiry. Mike is the author of the book Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate, and a staff writer for The Atlantic. He has reported extensively on the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine, and has done investigative work on topics such as ISIS's criminal and financial networks.
Despite his busy schedule of reporting from around the globe, Mike made some time to write the following for us. We are incredibly grateful for his insights into what is going on abroad.
If you’ve been following the news from Syria over the last two months, you probably heard that America is leaving, and maybe you saw newsreels of U.S. troops driving out of the country. You probably also heard that America is staying; maybe you saw footage of newly arrived tanks and soldiers from the U.S. Army National Guard. So which is it? The answer, confusingly, is both.
This sort of confusion has defined U.S. policy on Syria for the last decade. I started covering the conflict, as a journalist, back in early 2011, with Barack Obama still in his first term. It can be hard to remember what Syria looked like then, at the start of the Arab Spring: hopeful, urgent, with young protesters around the country pushing for the peaceful overthrow of one of the world’s worst dictatorial regimes. I see similarities in the protests in Hong Kong today. The Syrians in the streets were chanting for democracy, social justice, and human rights. Many Americans wanted to support them; some urged them on, from the internet, sharing and liking their Facebook and Twitter posts. Eventually, in August 2011, Obama called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down. Instead Assad’s government responded to the protesters with extreme violence, jailing and torturing some and killing others in the streets.
It’s important to know this origin story to understand the grim situation in Syria today — and how a muddled U.S. policy has, from the start, made the bloodshed much worse. The violence during the protests eventually led to a civil war, and the U.S. government decided to get involved in it. I arrived in southern Turkey, on the border with Syria, in the summer of 2012 and began tracking the various kinds of American support flowing to the rebellion: political training, humanitarian supplies, weapons. Even as it backed the opposition, though, the U.S. government didn’t want to be in the business of regime change. So, the weapons it sent the rebels were enough to keep them alive, but not to win the war. This confused policy played a role in keeping the war in a bloody stalemate, as Assad’s jets bombed civilian areas and more and more Syrians fled the country. I watched as the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation unfolded, as the number of refugees escaping into Turkey moved from thousands to tens and then hundreds of thousands, eventually reaching around 3 million.
In so many of the war-time interviews I conducted over the years — with civilians, with smugglers, with jihadis, with rebel commanders — people asked me, sometimes with desperation, what I thought America’s intentions really were in Syria, hoping I had some special insight. The best I could tell them was that the U.S. government itself didn’t seem to really know, and that if they tied their hopes too closely to America, they’d probably be let down eventually. And I watched that happen as time passed. Activists, rebels, political leaders, aid workers, and anyone else who received U.S. backing were generally arrested, killed or driven from the country.
They were targeted by Assad, and by his ally Russia, which has even intentionally bombed civilian hospitals, as the New York Times documented this fall. They were also targeted by ISIS, which rose up in Syria amid the chaos of the bloody rebellion. Its rise to prominence in Syria and Iraq, in fact, was the beginning of the end for what remained of the pro-American opposition. It was also what dragged the U.S. back into another war in the region. First this new U.S. war was only airstrikes, and then those airstrikes were carried out in coordination with local soldiers, and eventually America put troops on the ground. In Syria, the main American partner became the Kurds, an ethnic minority that has been traditionally repressed in the country and around the region.
Even before America became concerned with ISIS, after it seized the Iraqi city of Mosul and began beheading Western aid workers and journalists, the Kurds had been fighting them in Syria. In fact, they were the ones who first warned me about ISIS, when I visited them in their obscure corner of northeastern Syria in the fall of 2013. To get there, I was smuggled across the Turkish border and through a minefield into Syria, along with the photographer Yusuf Sayman, whose photos are included here. We found the Kurds waging a lonely struggle against ISIS. Though most Americans had yet to hear of the group, the Kurds told us that they were smart and strong and dominated by foreign fighters, and would become a problem for the wider world soon enough. As Yusuf and I drove through the region where ISIS and the Kurds had been fighting, hundreds of photos of young men and women lined the roadside. These were the Kurdish soldiers who’d been killed in the war already. In the years that followed, that number would rise exponentially.
The Kurds would go on to spend more than four years working with America to fight ISIS in Syria. When U.S. troops arrived in the country, they were based in Kurdish territory. The Kurds formed the backbone of a multi-ethnic force that was armed and trained by U.S. soldiers and carried out almost all of the ground fighting to free ISIS territory in Syria, losing 10,000 soldiers along the way. Earlier this year, U.S. troops and their Kurdish allies declared that ISIS had been driven from the last of its strongholds in the country.
In its partnership with the Kurds, America’s role in Syria finally seemed clear: it was at war, working with a reliable ally against a common enemy. If you looked closer, though, you could see that the U.S. role in Syria was mired in the same confusion as ever — which would once again bring deadly consequences for its friends. That’s because while America was officially at war, it was never honest with itself about what that meant. There were more than 1,000 American boots on the ground in Syria, but the U.S. troops deployed to this conflict were the secret kind. The U.S. mission revolved around special operations forces, with members of units like the Delta Force and SEAL Team Six whose work is classified and kept out of the public eye. That meant that the U.S. government could have soldiers on the ground that it didn’t have to talk to the public about, and this encouraged Americans to feel that they were at war with ISIS on the one hand but, on the other, didn’t have to feel all that connected to it. I saw a similar mindset while documenting civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. There were thousands of them, but it was something the government seldom acknowledged, and regular Americans didn’t think much about.
This sense of detachment made it easy for Trump to abandon the Kurds, which he did in October. Why keep U.S. troops in a war that Americans didn’t really understand in the first place? And so he withdrew U.S. forces from Kurdish regions near the border with Turkey, which considers the Syrian Kurds and enemy, so it could attack them. More than 100,000 people were uprooted in the chaos that followed, as Turkish jets dropped bombs, more Kurdish soldiers died, and Turkish-backed fighters committed massacres against civilians. ISIS, which has gone underground in Syria, suddenly had new life.
In the background, U.S. officials were scrambling to stop the damage, and they managed to convince Trump to reverse his decision, at least partly. The Kurds retreated deeper into their territory, where some U.S. troops remain. The withdrawal, in the end, was only partial. To justify this about-face, Trump has said that the U.S. troops are staying to protect the oil wells in the region, to make sure they don’t fall into ISIS hands. This makes little sense, as ISIS would gain little from taking the oil fields now, even if it could. The U.S. military has been more honest — U.S. troops are staying to continue working with the Kurds against ISIS, which the U.S. government believes still has thousands of fighters in hiding across Syria.
The confusion continues, and so does the chaos that comes with it.
The confusion I’ve been describing here, and the related sense of detachment, are why I believed it was so important to cover these things on the ground — to go to Syria, to meet jihadis and smugglers in the hotels and cafes of southern Turkey, to embed with local forces on the front lines of the fight against ISIS. Six years of my reporting on these subjects forms the basis of my new book, Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate. My hope was that shedding light on these people and places would help to make things less confusing, and show Americans that we’re more connected to this conflict than we like to think.
Mike Giglio is a staff writer at The Atlantic in Washington, DC. Previously based in Istanbul, he spent more than five years reporting on the wars in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. Shatter the Nations is his first book. You can buy it here, or at your local bookstore.
Photography by Yusuf Sayman