Foreign Relations & International Law

On the Ground in Northern Syria

Daniel Gabriel, Jens Dakin, Ali Sada
Thursday, October 24, 2019, 8:00 AM

President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from observation posts in northeastern Syria has paved the way for Turkey’s military offensive into areas inhabited by Syrian Kurds and other minority communities. In a little over two weeks, this region has gone from relative stability to a state of conflict, uncertainty and fragility. Since 2016 we have conducted hundreds of interviews with Syrians from all backgrounds, including current and former members of the Islamic State. We filmed and catalogued the rise of the Islamic State across the region and the caliphate’s subsequent demise.

Kurdish YPG Fighters (Source: Flickr/Kurdishstruggle, CC by 2.0)

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President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from observation posts in northeastern Syria has paved the way for Turkey’s military offensive into areas inhabited by Syrian Kurds and other minority communities. In a little over two weeks, this region has gone from relative stability to a state of conflict, uncertainty and fragility. Since 2016 we have conducted hundreds of interviews with Syrians from all backgrounds, including current and former members of the Islamic State. We filmed and catalogued the rise of the Islamic State across the region and the caliphate’s subsequent demise. We built extensive networks across the country and maintain close relationships with our Syrian friends and colleagues who often contact us to let us know what is going on in their communities. We also monitor local social media accounts to remain up to date on local issues because these are rarely reported in the news.

In October 2016, we began documenting the military operation by the Iraqi army and coalition forces to liberate Iraq’s second largest city from the Islamic State—a project that we eventually released as a feature documentary, “MOSUL.” It was our intent to shed some light on the complex nature of the uneasy alliance that existed among the many groups involved in liberating Iraq from the Islamic State, which included the government of Iraq; the Iraqi Army; the numerous militias formed by Christian, Kurdish, Yazidi and other minority groups; and the many Shiite or Sunni militias either directly or indirectly trained and funded by Iran. As filmmakers, we found that this temporary unity among a diverse group of Iraqi ethnic groups working together to fight the Islamic State was a compelling and complex storyline. But as a metaphor for the modern Middle East, “MOSUL” also presented a cautionary tale of how unwise it is to believe that peace and stability will have a lasting presence in Iraq and perhaps the wider region. That plot is now unfolding in full view, hastened by the Trump administration’s decision to effectively greenlight Turkey’s encroachment into northern Syria. Indeed, the seeds of the next conflict have already been sown, and current events are not helping to build trust and establish lasting peace.

In our encounters with Christian and Kurdish militia leaders in 2016 and 2017, many voiced an acknowledgment of a common Iraqi history and common suffering. They spoke of hope for the future, too, but every expression of hope was tinged with a palpable sense of skepticism and pessimism. While “MOSUL” contains many messages of hope for the future of Iraq and the region after the period of Islamic State brutality, there remains an underlying sense that national pride and unity is only a temporary arrangement. Tensions have always existed between the region’s minority communities and the majority Shiite and Sunni groups, but intercommunal tension tends to be most visible between Shiites and Sunnis despite considerable efforts to mitigate sectarian tension over the years. Those who study the region—and certainly those who live there—understand that it will not take much to peel back that veneer and expose the sectarian rivalries and populist sentiments that have time and again placed these communities at odds with each other.

From our experience working in Iraq on “MOSUL” we learned that the situation in Iraq is not unique. In al Hasaka, Syria—only 250 kilometers from Mosul—our local film crews are working to document the next chapter of this unfolding story. As the tragedy of this rapidly evolving situation now comes into focus, we see a familiar storyline with similar groups and histories, and ethnic and religious ties that transcend the modern borders. For decades under the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and under the Assad dynasty in Syria, these internal rivalries and differences were suppressed, giving the impression of stability and harmony. And for the past five years, the additional bulwark of U.S. involvement and leadership in Operation Inherent Resolve kept these groups from open conflict. The recent change in U.S. posture has unleashed those rivalries anew.

Prior to its incursion into Syria, the Turkish government publicly stated that its objective was to create a secure buffer zone in northern Syria to mitigate the threat posed by members of a Syrian Kurdish militia called the People's Protection Units (YPG). Recently, we have learned that Turkey has regularly threatened to invade northern Syria to take on the Kurds. Turkey has insisted the YPG is an extension of the Kurdish PKK, a separatist group threatening Turkey’s national security—and one that has been designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU. The YPG, which rejects Turkey’s claims, is the dominant element in an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a critical partner for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.

Turkey has threatened to unleash 3 million refugees on the European continent and has also announced plans to repatriate up to 2 million Syrian refugees into the northern Syrian buffer zone—areas it has cleared of Kurds. The Kurds and other minority groups perceive this as an attempt to upend the existing demographic map of Syria, driving the Kurds away from this region. Recent reporting suggests that as many as 300,000 people have been displaced by Turkey’s military operation, many of whom are from the Kurdish and Christian communities.

Turkey’s actions have generated many thousands of comments on social media by users located in the region, and a quick review of organic posts from Iraq and Syria reveal a range of views on the Turkish operation. Some social media users believe that this incursion is the beginning of a Turkish expansion in the region as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan implements his plan for a new Ottoman Empire, with the Syrian Kurds as his first target and Iraqi Kurds next in line. Some pro-SDF posts have taken offense at comments by President Trump that the Kurds were “well paid by the U.S.” for fighting the Islamic State, highlighting that once again the Kurds have been let down and abandoned by America. Social media posts from supporters of Erdogan defended Turkey’s actions, saying that Turkey has to defend itself from terrorists and that Erdogan is the only Muslim leader who stood up to the U.S. and its actions in Syria and the Middle East.

Sentiments of the people we have interviewed on the ground span every possible fear, hope and conspiracy theory one could imagine. Among pro-Assad Syrians, some seem to oppose Turkey’s actions, fearing a uniting of the Kurds across Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey that would eventually threaten Syria. Some have expressed hope that Erdogan can bring stability to northern Syria and prevent the Kurds from being the dominant force in the region. And still others are openly critical of the Assad regime in calling on Assad’s forces to regain control of Syrian lands from both the Kurds and Turkey. One recurring comment that supporters of the Syrian regime expressed to us is that the Kurds have only themselves to blame for their situation, having “sold themselves to America” and “this is what happens to America’s mercenaries.”

Sectarian divisions are also evident online. Erdogan’s close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood have raised concerns over Turkey’s intentions to build a “Sunni belt” across northern Syria by repatriating Sunni Arab refugees onto Kurdish lands. Our assessment of discussions with our local sources and on social media indicates a feeling that Erdogan is attempting to unite Sunni Arabs in the region as a barrier against increasing Iranian influence. This is reinforced by the belief that Turkey facilitated the Islamic State’s rise in the hope that it would act as a defender of Sunni interests in the region. This is also borne out by Turkey’s use of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Sunni proxies against the Kurds. These Turkish-backed forces are also reported to have used religious imagery and slogans similar to those used by the Islamic State, representing a worrying affiliation.

We have also interviewed our sources in northern Iraq, who noted they were aware that some Yazidis and Christians—who are supporters of Masoud Barzani, the former President of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and current leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party—have joined Kurdish units in Iraq and stand ready to defend their homes if Turkey invades. Although these minority groups do not want any escalation into a regional conflict, they believe that Erdogan wants to diminish Kurdish influence across the region and they will be the collateral damage. While there is a longing for stability, especially after so much conflict, there is a fear that war involving Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey may result.

It is unknown how far the Turkish forces will go, and how the Syrian regime and Iraq will react if the conflict escalates. Will Turkey’s actions reignite sectarian conflict and draw in other regional powers such as Iran, the Persian Gulf States and Israel and be the catalyst for a wider conflict? How will Russia and the U.S. react? All of this remains to be seen. Russia now appears to be the leading power in this conflict.

There is also a general consensus among our local sources and online that the Islamic State will make a comeback in some form or another, as they will expertly exploit the existing conflict, security vacuum and sectarian divisions—as they have done before. Online, we have monitored Islamic State supporters openly talking about a “return to the glory days” of the caliphate.

These sentiments ominously mirror the complex landscape we explored in “MOSUL,” in which our colleague and protagonist, Iraqi journalist Ali Maula, accompanied a number of regular and irregular Iraqi military units advancing north to fight the Islamic State. With U.S. and coalition forces operating in a supporting role, our objective as filmmakers was to focus on Iraqis taking the fight to and ultimately defeating the caliphate. “MOSUL” showed audiences that if Iraqis from many backgrounds could, in a time of national existential crisis, unite to defeat the Islamic State, they could overcome their differences and remain united in the future. However, it also exposed the underlying vulnerabilities of this fragile alliance. Some subjects we filmed for “MOSUL” were dismissive of regional powers’ efforts to destabilize Iraq. While some expressed a general distrust of Iran and Turkey’s strategic intentions, one subject used historical imagery to describe how Turkey and its “Ottoman hordes” are intent on invading Iraq and stealing its natural resources.

In our continued reporting on this conflict, we have seen that many people in the region long for security and stability for their families and communities. Sadly, the fears of local and regional conflict we portrayed in “MOSUL” remain very much on the minds of these war-weary communities.

Daniel Gabriel is the Director and Executive Producer of MOSUL. His knowledge and deep understanding of the region and its politics began while he was working as a CIA counterterrorism officer in 2003, eventually completing six tours to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. After his time with the CIA, Dan’s interest in filmmaking led him to complete graduate work in Filmmaking at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts (2013), and in Producing (2014) at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. This is his debut film.
Jens Dakin is an international strategic communications professional, specializing in leveraging insights obtained from challenging operating environments to develop impactful and culturally-sensitive engagement campaigns. Mr. Dakin previously served in the British Army in a variety of operational theaters, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also an Associate Producer on MOSUL.
Ali Sada is the founder of IRFAD, an Iraq and U.S.-based organization that supports international development programs with field research, local insights, access and implementation expertise in Iraq, Syria and across the Middle East. Mr. Sada is also the founder and co-editor of Daesh Daily, a daily English-language summary and analysis of local news sources, eyewitness reports and social media posts related to the ISIS terror group’s activities. He is a leading expert on ISIS’ use of social media to conduct recruiting and propaganda and provided technical assistance on MOSUL.

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