Barely more than 48 hours ago, when Donald Trump had officially ordered the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, Oleg Blochin's videos appeared on social media on Tuesday. The Russian journalist had in the past accompanied the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner group as well in the civil war country as soldiers of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
"Hello to everyone from Manbij," says Blochin in one of the videos. "I'm on an American base, where they were yesterday morning, and this morning we're already here." He then looks around the deserted US base in northern Syria.
For clarity, this is Oleg Blokhin, a Russian was correspondent.
He's worked in the past for ANNA News, whose reporters are often embedded with Russian-backed Syrian troops. https://t.co/5AyfcxkFZf
Almost at the same time comes the confirmation from Baghdad: "We are out of Manbij," tweets Myles B. Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition against the terrorist militia "Islamic State" (IS).
Coalition forces are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria. We are out of Manbij. // تقوم قوات التحالف بتنفيذ إنسحاب مدروس من شمال شرق سوريا. لقد غادرنا منبج- OIR Spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III (@OIRSpox) October 15, 2019
In the US, Trump is heavily criticized for his decision: The United States, the accusation, left a gap that now filled Russia and its allies. But what does the decision mean for the approximately 1,000 local soldiers? And what dangers does the retreat entail? Answers to the most important questions.
Where were the US troops deployed before the Turkish offensive?
The US soldiers, mostly special forces, operated on about a dozen bases and outposts in northeastern Syria. For the most part, they lived alongside their Kurdish allies.
Around 500 soldiers were assigned to a headquarters West. This overlooked half a dozen smaller outposts in the area around Manbij and Rakka. Headquarters East was near the Iraqi border. There were also about 500 soldiers in action. Due to frequent troop movements between Iraq and Syria, however, their numbers fluctuated.
How did the soldiers react to the President's decision?
Trump's decision to make a sudden retreat left both the Pentagon and the forces of northern Syria unprepared. Some of them anonymously criticized the withdrawal of troops.
"They trusted us and we broke that trust," the New York Times quoted a US officer fighting alongside the Kurds in northern Syria. He spoke of a "patch on the American conscience." He was ashamed, another soldier told the newspaper. (Read more about this here.)
How is the deduction carried out?
According to the New York Times, the US soldiers will first leave those posts closest to the approaching foreign troops. The latter are the Turkish army, allied militias, and Russian forces and Assad's soldiers.
Headquarters East and West are likely to retreat independently. In the West, this is to happen via an airfield in Kobane, probably with transport aircraft. In the East, the US troops - mainly in convoys, partly in helicopters - to cross the border with Iraq.
Will US troops stay in Syria?
A smaller force remains stationed in al-Tanf, a small garrison in southern Syria near the border with Jordan and Iraq. This was announced by Trump on Sunday. According to the New York Times, this should be about 150 soldiers. The majority of the soldiers who are leaving Syria will probably be transferred to Iraq or Jordan; some could return to the US.
The statement by the President merely states that the soldiers who left Syria would remain "in the region" and continue to monitor the situation. Their mission, therefore, is to prevent a repeat of the events of 2014, "when the neglected threat of ISIS raged across Syria and Iraq."
How dangerous is the withdrawal?
For the American soldiers, the retreat is associated with considerable dangers. Both military convoys and helicopters and transport planes could become the targets of various armed groups:
- There are first possible attacks by IS sleeper cells, which were submerged after the widespread defeat of the terrorist militia. In addition, in the course of the Turkish offensive hundreds of IS fighters have fled from a camp.
- Other dangers threatened by Arab militias, allied with Turkey. These last formed the spearhead of the Turkish offensive on the ground. They are considered less disciplined than units of the Turkish army and are reported to have fired on departing US troops.
- Nor can it be ruled out in the turmoil of war that it comes to a confrontation with Russian forces or their ally troops Assad.
The risks associated with the sudden withdrawal force the US to take a far-reaching step: they will first have to send more troops to Syria. "We are moving additional forces into the region to help protect the force, if necessary," said Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently. The Kurds once supported the operation of the US bases. But since the beginning of the Turkish offensive, the former allies are bound in the defense struggle.