Read: The intelligence fallout from Trump’s withdrawal in Syria
Shortly after we spoke, Russia and Turkey announced that they would perform joint patrols in the region along the Syrian border that had been the focus of the Turkish incursion. The rest of the territory that has been under SDF control remains in limbo as U.S. troops carry out Trump’s withdrawal order. After the announcement, James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative to Syria, had testy exchanges with Congress in which he insisted that America still retained the ability to influence the outcome in these areas. And Trump has made confusing statements suggesting that some U.S. troops may remain in SDF territory to protect oil facilities. But the most likely scenario in most of those areas—according to Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council, Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security, and Hassan Hassan of the Center for Global Policy, among other analysts—is that they return to regime control. All said that if this happens, it will likely target U.S.-linked Syrians immediately.
Officials at the NGOs that have been carrying out U.S.-funded work in SDF areas told me they worried about exactly this outcome, and that some Syrian staff had already begun to flee the country. Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, the director of People Demand Change, a U.S.-funded NGO working in Syria, told me that he has been frantically trying to find escape routes for staff members. While in the past, U.S.-backed Syrians often escaped to Turkey, anyone who has worked in the SDF region might be at risk there too. The best option is to flee to the Kurdish region of Iraq, but Ghosh-Siminoff told me the route is dangerous, with new checkpoints popping up and an unclear picture of which armed groups are now in control of various roads. The unplanned nature in which Trump made his decision made it impossible to draw up extraction plans in advance, he added. “The problem is that no one knows which roads are controlled by whom and how many checkpoints there are and who they will encounter on the road,” he said. “We will bribe, cheat, and steal our way out. Leaving our local staff behind can’t be an option.”
Read: How the war against ISIS was won, before it was lost
An official with the U.S.-based aid group Blumont, which does extensive work on U.S. government contracts in Syria, estimated that there are more than 5,000 aid workers in northeastern Syria. “Staff are absolutely feeling very afraid and very much in danger,” this person told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns. Another official working with an international NGO, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for similar reasons, said its staff had burned any documents with their colleagues’ personal information to avoid having it fall into regime hands, fearing they will be targeted for retribution.
The Blumont official added that a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan is hosting thousands of new arrivals from SDF territory. Among the new residents, she said, were aid workers from various international organizations: “These are staff who have been working for [internally displaced people] for years, and now they’re in a camp themselves.”