WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that the United States will withdraw its remaining troops from Syria, a move that could have significant repercussions for humanitarian organizations operating in the country.
Trump’s announcement was met with surprise and alarm by many lawmakers — and caught off guard NGO leaders with a stake in the Syrian reconstruction effort. The decision comes at the end of a year of mixed signals from the Trump administration about what the United States’ role in Syria will be, as cities and communities liberated from the Islamic State’s occupation seek to repair their battered infrastructure and mend broken livelihoods.
“To me it's unfathomable — northeast Syria is badly damaged, and it needs help.”— Joel Charny, executive director, Norwegian Refugee Council USA
The U.S. government coordinates its stabilization activities in northeast Syria through START Forward, a branch of the Department of State’s Syria Transition and Response Team, which pulls together personnel from multiple agencies.
In April, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green and Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, spoke jointly about the need to align military and stabilization efforts in Syria at a time when, according to Votel, “the hard part ... is in front of us.”
But even as the pair spoke, Trump was telling reporters: “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.”
One month later, the administration suspended $200 million in Syria stabilization funding, calling on other donors to step in. Wednesday’s announcement of a full withdrawal raised significant questions about how the humanitarian and stabilization effort will proceed.
Joel Charny, executive director at Norwegian Refugee Council USA recently returned from northeast Syria. Devex spoke with him to understand the potential implications of this decision.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does the humanitarian response look like in northeastern Syria at the moment? What was your biggest takeaway?
My overwhelming impression, even in the northeast, was the extent of the damage that, in this case, was unleashed by a combination of coalition airstrikes, coalition activity, and then of course all the Islamic State booby traps, and mines, and so on.
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You don't have to go to Raqqa to see the extent of the damage and the disruption. I admit that the number of people in internal displacement camps has gone down over the course of this year. Camps that maybe once had 20,000, now have more like 2,000, or 4,000, or 5,000 people. Nonetheless, the people I spoke to had had their lives profoundly disrupted.
Administrator Green, CENTCOM Commander Votel, and Special Envoy [Brett] McGurk went to this region in January of this year, and they stood in the rubble of Raqqa and promised that — given the needs and given the level of destruction — the U.S. and the coalition and their supporters would make the effort to rebuild, would make the effort to meet the needs of the population whose lives are so badly disrupted, first by IS, and then later by the struggle to defeat them.
That was undercut by the president basically announcing a suspension of stabilization funding. We talked to the people at START Forward [and they said], “Don't worry, the Emiratis are stepping up, the Saudis are stepping up. The fact that the U.S. has suspended this $200 million doesn't mean the program is suspended.”
But I mean, now we're pulling out?
There are huge needs in that part of the country. I can guarantee you that the people who have gone home face immense challenges in terms of rebuilding destroyed housing, the schools in many areas are not functioning yet, and now we're walking away. To me it's unfathomable — northeast Syria is badly damaged, and it needs help.
What message is sent by pulling out the civilians and saying that this is going to be managed out of neighboring countries? This is one of these decisions that's just a bolt out of the blue.
Who exactly do you understand is being removed from this part of Syria?
The U.S. has a team in Syria, based in northern Syria, that is joint State Department, USAID, technical experts, the military — they're all sitting together and nominally planning and implementing a comprehensive set of activities to help the people of northeast Syria rebuild and recover.
“So once again, it's like [NGOs are] supposed to take all the risk.”—
That entire team is being withdrawn. And that's in the context of the U.S. having already frozen stabilization funding.
So once again, it's like [NGOs are] supposed to take all the risk.
I wish I could give you the detail on what we're being told, but we're scrambling around. I'm not sure that there is a coherent message that's being given right now.
They're dropping this on us literally six days before Christmas when key staff may be on leave. Who's going to be able to respond to this?
I take it that there was no consultation or discussion with anyone in the NGO community.
None. Zero. 100 percent zero.
We did not find out that this was going down through any official channel.
So what do you do next?
The most important thing in a situation like this is to do a combination of the implications for staff and the implications for programs and make decisions as to whether we can or should continue or not.
Do we evacuate staff? If so whom? Do we have to evacuate the entire region, or just areas that are more to the west rather than to the east closer to Iraq? All those operational things are absolutely 100 percent the most pressing thing.
Then we need to hear from our donors.
One of the nice things in the northeast is there's a very good, very well-managed and respected NGO forum. To the extent that there's any formal communication from the START Forward people — I imagine they'll probably send that to the NGO forum for dissemination to its members.
Recognizing that you haven't done that assessment yet, it sounds like you have reason to believe that this troop withdrawal is going to have dramatic consequences for the humanitarian response effort. Can you give me a sense of what you are concerned about?
The immediate concern is hostilities between the Turks and the Kurdish armed groups, and no one wants to be caught in the middle of that.
The longer-term concern, let's say over weeks and in the coming months, is — is IS really defeated, or are they going to be able to make a return and begin to disrupt things again? That's a possibility. I'm not a military expert — how big of a difference does it make to withdraw 2,000 troops from the standpoint of how this unfolds? I can't really say.
What kind of statement is the U.S. making by pulling out? Are they saying, “mission accomplished?” Well, there are people in the U.S. government that don't believe that the mission has been accomplished. And if they're not saying, “mission accomplished,” they're just saying, “oh well, I guess we're done. God bless them. They'll figure it out.”
“Somewhere between the insane numbers that we had in Iraq and $200 million, there's a happy medium that would allow a more robust reconstruction effort.”—
The trajectory over the last 12 months is really rather remarkable when you think about it. We've gone from saying, “we're going to help rebuild northeast Syria with ISIS having been defeated,” to freezing the funding, “but don't worry other governments are going to fund it,” to now pulling out. So there's no funding, and there's no presence.
What has been the impact of the frozen stabilization funding over the last several months?
They got other donors to step in and maintain the program. There's no clear sense that X and Y didn't happen because of that freeze. My point on that is that the sheer volume of money is just so tiny compared to the level of destruction that had been wrought on that part of Syria.
The argument is basically: You suspend $200 million in stabilization, the Emiratis, the Saudis and others step up. They’re only $20 million short. In the meantime, full steam ahead.
What people argued in the northeast is that that's just a pittance compared to the needs, and I agree with that. Somewhere between the insane numbers that we had in Iraq and $200 million, there's a happy medium that would allow a more robust reconstruction effort, that would allow extensive demining, that would allow the 30,000 houses and shelters in Raqqa that were destroyed to be rebuilt.
The effort just isn't serious, and the point is it wasn't serious at $200 million.
Is there the potential for anyone to step in on the positive side, into this vacuum that would be created by America's withdrawal?
Who's going to do it? In other words, will the Saudis and the Emiratis continue this effort independently? I don't know.
If they do, they're not going to do it with personnel in northeast Syria. Maybe the U.S. argument is, “well, we don't really need to be there. We can manage this thing from neighboring countries.” That, in fact, probably will be the argument.
I really can't stress enough this whole [question of] who takes the risk in that circumstance — “oh, it's the good old NGOs, the good old operational NGOs. They'll just carry on. We can count on them. We'll be sitting in Jordan doing periodic fly-in visits and let the NGOs sort it out.”
Do you intend to try to do anything on the political side to push for a different U.S. position, or is your sense that this is settled?
Our expectation is that there are going to be people on [Capitol] Hill of both parties that are going to be quite concerned about this and who are going to want an explanation. But whether it can be turned around, whether it should be turned around, what kind of aid do we want and need going forward — all that is to be discussed.
Certainly I and NRC — I don't know about our peers, but I suspect they would agree — we're not going to be arguing about troop levels and 2,000 versus none, or why don't we have more.
We really destroyed northeast Syria to a rather remarkable degree. Raqqa was supposedly 70 percent destroyed. There is damage and destruction of both buildings and lives all over the northeast, and I'd like to think that the U.S. would feel some responsibility for that.
Is that a message that will resonate on the Hill in the new year? Not sure, but I think it's a case that's worth making.
Update, Dec. 20, 2018: This article has been updated to withhold sensitive information.