DOHUK, Iraq – Syrian government forces stormed the northeastern part of the country on Monday, seizing cities where they had not trodden for years and filling a void opened by President Trump's decision to abandon Syrian Kurdish allies.
Less than a week after Turkey launched a raid into northern Syria with Trump's consent, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, considered a war criminal by the United States, benefited greatly by striking a deal with the former. -allied from the United States to take the northern border and gain territory quickly without a fight.
In addition to al-Assad, Trump's decision to oust American forces also quickly resulted in gains from Russia and Iran, as well as the Islamic State, as the retreat reconfigures battle lines and alliances in the eight-year war.
"For the Syrian regime and Russia, the Americans are leaving, which is a great achievement," said Hassan Hassan, a Syrian analyst at the Center for Global Policy. “In just one day, it's gone. They need not worry about what this presence means for the future. "
The biggest risk to US troops on their withdrawal comes from the Turkish militia, which led the offensive in many places, backed by Turkish artillery and air strikes.
US officials say these Turkish-backed militias are less disciplined than regular Turkish soldiers and deliberately or inadvertently fired on the withdrawal of US troops.
Faced with a rapidly evolving situation, Trump's policy towards the region remained negative. After greening the Turkish raid a week ago, threatening to ruin Turkey's economy on Monday Trump announced sanctions Turkey, raising steel tariffs and suspending negotiations on a $ 100 billion trade agreement with Ankara.
Trump's decision turned a relatively stable corner of Syria into its most dynamic battlefield. As Turkish and Syrian fighters, he supports the northern entrance to eradicate Kurdish-led militia allied with the United States, al-Assad's forces relocated from the south, devouring territory.
In concern about the security of the remaining US troops in Syria, Gen. Mark A. Milley, president of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Russian colleague on Monday about the deteriorating security in the north-east of the country. In an interview with reporters Monday night, Vice President Mike Pence said Trump had spoken by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and called for an immediate ceasefire.
"President Erdogan reached out and requested the call, and President Trump told him very clearly that the United States of America wants Turkey to stop the invasion," Pence said.
On Monday, without a fight, government forces seized several cities that had been recently held by US allies, including Tel Tamer, home to an Assyrian Christian community; Tabqa, which has a large hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River; and Ein Issa, where the United States maintained a contingent of forces until recently.
Fighting continued in cities near the northern Turkish border, pitting various forces against each other and terrorizing civilians.
Kurdish militants fought Turkish troops around Ras al Ain and Tal Abyad, Syrian border towns that the Turks claim to have taken. And both Turkey and the Syrian government were sending troops to Manbij, raising the specter of new fighting there.
Erdogan said the raid is necessary for the security of his country and that Turkey seeks to establish a "safe zone" 30 kilometers deep by hundreds of kilometers within the Syrian border.
The invasion sparked widespread international condemnation, and on Monday foreign ministers from all 28 EU member states agreed to stop selling weapons to Turkey, an unprecedented step toward a NATO member.
But Erdogan seemed unfazed, promising that Turkey would continue a speech in Azerbaijan.
"We are determined to take our operation to an end," he said. “Let's finish what we started. A flying flag does not fall.
Much of the territory contested in the current conflict has been torn from Islamic State jihadists by a US-led international coalition in partnership with a Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F. As the jihadists reversed, the S.D.F. seized his territory, which he sought to rule under US protection.
But this partnership has angered Turkey, which considers Kurdish terrorist fighters for their ties to a Kurdish guerrilla organization that has been fighting the Turkish state for decades.
It was Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria that gave Turkey the opening to attack, triggering the current violence.
No longer protected by the United States, the Kurds made a deal with the Syrian government, an American enemy, to bring their forces north to protect the area.
A Kurdish official, Aldar Xelil, said in a statement on Monday that the deal would put Syrian government forces in two lanes along the border, but not in a section where Kurdish fighters are currently fighting the Turks. Government forces would defend the border against the Turks, he said, while the Kurdish-led government would continue to oversee governance and internal security in the region.
But much about the deal remained uncertain, and the Syrian state media made no mention of it in the coverage of Syrian troops taking over cities and was welcomed by local residents chanting Mr. al-Assad.
About 1,000 US troops serve at various bases in northeastern Syria, but President Trump's orders will remove troops in the coming weeks, sending them, at least initially, to Iraq. From there, they can be repositioned to other neighboring countries, such as Jordan or Lebanon, or back to the United States, military officials said.
For now, the Pentagon plans to leave 150 Special Operations forces at a base called al-Tanf in southern Syria.
Trump administration officials have long argued that troops were needed to control the influence of Iran, Russia and al-Assad; prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State; and leverage the United States in any peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian war.
The government has not explained how it plans to pursue these objectives without local troops or allies in Syria.
Hassan, a Syrian analyst, said it was clear that Turkey and Al-Assad had more to gain from the American withdrawal and the relocation of northeastern Syria.
Despite international condemnation, Turkey has succeeded in overturning the dream of Kurdish-led self-government, which had been growing for years in less than a week.
"This is the end or the beginning of the end of the Kurdish project in Syria," said Hassan.
Al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian supporters have also gained a lot because the United States has spent huge resources to defeat the Islamic State, and now al-Assad is ready to reclaim the territory.
"It was not just you who left, but you have fought on his behalf for the past five years," said Hassan.
The biggest losers were the Kurds, who lost their foreign supporters and saw their political dreams crumble, and the civilians in the region, who were now subjected to another era of violence and uncertainty.
New fighting in the north has displaced more than 160,000 people, according to the United Nations, limited access to aid organizations and scattered families in search of safe places to await violence.
Syrian refugees living in Turkey said they had lost contact with relatives in the border region as families fled south in the desert, hoping to avoid air strikes and bombing, camping outdoors, away from any cell phone coverage.
A Syrian painter in the Turkish town of Suruc, near the Syrian border, said three of his wife's cousins and another couple were missing and believed to have been kidnapped on the road between Manbij and Raqqa.
"No one knows what is going on," said painter Ali, who gave his first name only for fear of reprisals against relatives in Syria.
The loss of US support has terrified the Kurds in the region, many of whom distrust Al-Assad, but fear Turkey the most.
Giving up the dream of self-government would still be "a million times better than having our cities invaded by terrorist mercenaries and criminal Turks," said Arin Sheikhmous, a Kurdish activist in the border town of Qamishli.
But as al-Assad's forces advanced, others feared the horrors often associated with the Syrian state: recruitment to the Syrian military or random arrests that made countless people disappear in Syrian prisons.
It is not yet clear what will happen to the more than 10,000 former Islamic State combatants held in Kurdish-run prisons, as well as the tens of thousands of Islamic State women and children now held in squalid camps.
Some feared that the new agreement between the Kurds and the government might see prisoners handed over to Al-Assad.
Hamida Mustafa, a Syrian activist in southern Turkey, said he was concerned about his brother, who had been detained two years ago by the Kurdish-led militia.
He had heard on the first night of the Turkish raid that the common criminals had been released while political prisoners had been transferred to another prison in Hasakah City. He was unable to locate his brother, but feared that he would eventually be handed over to the Syrian government and would never see him again.
"We're scared now," he said. "They did it before."