Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer goes to Syria to cover the civil war there for this week's Sunday Long Read, an indispensable piece on the bloody whirlwind that is the enduring humanitarian catastrophe of our generation. Twelve million refugees, a half-million dead, and a Byzantine proxy war mess that has irrevocably changed Middle Eastern politics and history forever, and most Americans simply don't have a clue.
There are four main types of Americans fighting on the ground in Syria: special forces soldiers, CIA agents, Islamic extremists, and anarchists. As I putter in a motorboat across the Tigris River one afternoon in May 2018, I have no idea which of these, if any, I will encounter in the weeks ahead. The Pentagon already told me I couldn’t tag along with its troops; the CIA doesn’t publicly admit to having anything to do with Syria; the extremists would be happy to see me dead; and the anarchists tend to be cautious about tipping off the feds that they are fighting in a foreign country.
I disembark with a handful of locals and walk up a gravelly slope to a small shack. Iraq, which I just came from, is on the opposite side of the river. Turkey is not far upstream. A man with a wrinkled, sun-worn face and an AK-47 asks for our passports.
I don’t have a visa. One month after I submitted my application for one, the Syrian government dropped a chemical bomb on a building in Ghouta, outside Damascus. The United Nations said it killed 49 civilians, including 11 children. As I was waiting for a decision, President Donald Trump tweeted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—“Animal Assad”—would pay a “big price” for the attack. Less than a week later, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France bombed several research and military buildings. The Syrian Embassy in Beirut emailed me shortly afterward: “We want to inform you that your visa request has been rejected due to the lack of objectivity in the reports approaching the Syrian crisis.”
But this border crossing isn’t controlled by the Assad government. It’s controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of militias backed by the United States and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The SDF currently controls about 25 percent of Syria, an area known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The area encompasses largely Arab regions as well as most of the predominantly Kurdish region Rojava. Most of the roughly 2,000 US special operations troops in Syria are based in the region, spread across about a dozen bases.
As the Kurdish border guard with the AK flips through my passport, his face brightens. “Are you American?” he asks. “You are holy to us! The Kurdish people love Americans!” He lights a cigarette and takes a drag. “If it was up to us, we wouldn’t let the Americans leave,” he says. “They would stay here forever.” He tells me Turkish troops occasionally fire mortars at their position, small reminders of what awaits if US forces withdraw.
“Will they leave us?” another man asks me. He is Arab.
“It’s not clear,” I say. Five weeks earlier, Trump had announced he was pulling all US troops out of Syria “very soon,” but he’d walked back his statement a few days later. It wouldn’t be the last time he would do so.
“Maybe they will leave,” the Arab man says.
“No!” exclaims the wrinkled border guard.
“We have oil, so much oil,” the Arab says. “Let them stay and take the oil.”
“If American and Western companies—not Russian companies!—came and explored the region, they’d find more oil than Iraq,” the Kurd says. “There is oil, there is gas, there is phosphorus, whatever you want!” A chorus of birds rises with the waning heat. “We do whatever the coalition tells us to do. Directly! If it wasn’t for the coalition, we wouldn’t be here.” Assad, Turkey, what’s left of the Islamic State, and many of the rebel groups that were armed and trained by the CIA want to see the end of this breakaway territory. “If someone defends you, aren’t you going to give your life and your children’s lives to him? That’s the law of the universe, my brother.”
I've been digesting this piece since Wednesday and I have to say it's one of the best things I've read in years, this is Pulitzer-quality stuff here and while I often say "Read the whole thing" this is one time where I believe it's in your vital interests to do so.