By Janine di Giovanni
Ms. di Giovanni is the author of “The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria.”
April 6, 2018
A few weeks ago, a Syrian friend of mine, Kassem Eid, came to talk to the class I teach at Columbia. Kassem comes from Moadhamiyeh, a suburb of Damascus that had been besieged, starved and bombed. One August morning in 2013, he woke early for his morning prayers. As he tried to go back to sleep, he heard air raid sirens. Then he heard his roommates screaming — they were being attacked with chemical weapons.
Kassem lived through that awful day and wrote about the attack for The Times, as well as his subsequent decision to become a fighter against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Five more years of war left Kassem an exhausted and frustrated survivor. His words to my class were harsh and angry, the words of someone whose country has been beaten down by seven years of conflict.
What surprised my students the most was Kassem’s enthusiastic support for President Trump’s past decisions in Syria. He praised his airstrikes in 2017, which President Obama had never ordered, launched in retaliation for Mr. Assad’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which killed more than 70 people.
On Friday, I called Kassem to find out his thoughts about President Trump’s decision, announced this week, to pull American troops from Syria, despite the Pentagon and others warning him that it will create a vacuum for Iran and Russia, both patrons of Mr. Assad.
He was dismayed, but not surprised. The Americans had already seemed to lighten up on Mr. Assad. “I was brokenhearted to see how they let Assad massacre 2,000 people in less than two weeks,” he said, referring to the attacks on eastern Ghouta, which fell to Mr. Assad’s forces last month. “There were more chemical attacks, more atrocities. More people displaced from their homes. And no one did anything.”
I called other friends in Syria; they all said the same thing. Mr. Trump is sending a clear message to Mr. Assad: As long as we can claim victory over the Islamic State, we don’t care what you do, or what Russia or Iran does.
The message has already been received, in fact. In parts of Damascus, I was told, Iranian military officials are buying up real estate using Syrian businessmen as their front, turning it into an Iranian mini-fief within Syria. Their dream of an Iranian “land bridge” that allows them access to the Mediterranean is not quite there, but their influence will surely grow, as it has in neighboring Iraq.
As for the Russians, the withdrawal of American troops is a huge victory. Without them, the war will come to a faster, more brutal end, a win for Mr. Assad and his patrons and proof that Moscow has the stamina to stay in a conflict until the end. This week, as Mr. Trump planned his exit, the presidents of Iran, Turkey and Russia met to decide Syria’s fate. Mr. Assad was not there.
It is no coincidence that Saturday’s deadly chemical attack on the suburb of Douma, which killed 49 people in the last rebel-held area, came a year after Mr. Trump’s airstrikes on Assad targets. Is this Mr. Assad — or “Animal Assad,” as Mr. Trump referred to him in a weekend tweet — sending a deadly message to Washington following the decision to pull out troops? Is it a way of Mr. Assad telling the international community that he can do whatever he wants, knowing he will never be punished?
Realistically, the 2,000 American troops have not made a huge difference to the landscape of the war in terms of humanitarian assistance, because the United States never had a vested interest in protecting the Syrian population; the troops were not deployed in a way that, say, could ensure the delivery of food or medicine, or open up besieged towns. But the signal their sudden withdrawal sends to the Syrian people, especially the Syrian Kurds, and the rest of the world will be damning.
Kassem told me that living under the Assad dictatorship for 40 years, the national ideology taught him and his friends that America was the devil. “We were taught that America was the enemy,” he said. “Then we figured out it was all propaganda. But after seven years of atrocities, do you know what my friends and people around the Middle East are saying? That America is the enemy again. Because they see the Russians bombing us and the United States doing nothing. Now they pull out — when they could have been our friend or ally.”
Of course, Mr. Trump is not concerned about these things; his sole metric for success is defeating the Islamic State — though the vast majority of Syrian civilians were killed by Mr. Assad’s forces. But any claim of victory over the Islamic State is premature and naïve. As Kassem and others note, the seeds of “ISIS 2.0” are already planted in the thousands of angry people who have lost their families, their homes, their country. “When there are a million people dead,” Kassem said, “when most have lost everything, ISIS will say, ‘We told you so.’”
Mr. Trump has said that with America gone, its regional allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, should pick up the slack. But that could make things even worse. Israel has a long and complicated relationship with Syria, and it has shown little willingness to get more involved. And Mr. Trump is perhaps forgetting that Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the hard-core Wahhabi branch of Islam, which has inspired jihadists around the globe and could turbocharge a revived Islamic State.
As long as America has had troops in Syria, there was at least hope for a peaceful resolution to the war. Now the bottom is falling out. Kassem says he hears talk about the coming of the Mahdi, whom many Muslims believe will bring about Judgment Day, because the region is engulfed in chaos — a precondition for his arrival. “Everyone is talking end of days,” he says.
Janine di Giovanni is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of “The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria.”