Pelted with fruit and hounded by insults, the American military’s exit from Syria was very different from its time on the ground. The remnants of the US presence in the north-east of the country made an ignominious departure on Monday, driving through towns that had welcomed them for the past four years.
The regional capital of Qamishli, a hub of cooperation between US officers and Kurdish officials throughout the war against Islamic State, was among the least hospitable spots on the road out. As US battle trucks, sporting large American flags, made their way through town and headed towards Iraq, groups of locals threw rotting fruit and vegetables at them, cursing soldiers that only two weeks ago many in the region had considered to be their protectors.
The US convoy of roughly 100 armoured vehicles and lorries competed with a new wave of refugees as it made its way to the border, passing cars full of families crammed with their possessions. They too were leaving for Iraq, where the uncertainty of exile awaited.
The departing Americans, on the other hand, are set to regroup in Iraq’s Kurdistan region before returning home – their mission to safeguard a still-volatile region dramatically cut short by their commander-in-chief, who abruptly decided earlier this month to abandon allies who had been at the vanguard of the fight against Isis ahead of a Turkish assault. Trump said in the White House on Monday that the US had never given a commitment to the Kurds to stay in the region “400 years” to protect them.
“People are angry, and they have every right to be angry with the way Americans left them on the battlefield,” said Khalil Omar, 56, a shopkeeper, in Qamishli. “They are angry because they feel like they are tricked and taken for a fool for these past years.
“We sent our children with them to fight Isis, and they abandoned us. Betrayal is hard to get over, and I hope we’ll remember this for the future. America knows the people who are murdering people on the roads very well, but they chose to turn a blind eye, and now they are walking away from all of it. True friends don’t walk away in hard times.”
Two weeks after Donald Trump’s decision the impact continues to ricochet across the battlefields of the Kurdish north and into the region beyond.
Kurdish forces attacked by the Turkish military said they had completed a withdrawal from a “safe zone” near the Turkish border. Meanwhile, Turkey, which had declared a ceasefire that is set to expire on Tuesday night, said it was setting up observation posts in a swathe of Syria it has commandeered in a short intensive fight to oust Kurdish militias from the frontier area.
The Turkish move drew the ire of Iran, an ally of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are slowly returning to the region, as part of a deal brokered to slow the Turkish push.
“We are against Ankara’s establishing of military posts in Syria,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, said. “The issues should be resolved by diplomatic means.”
The sudden departure of the Americans, the retreat of the Kurds and the advance of Turkey and its Arab proxies have made for a heady two weeks in one of the Middle East’s most volatile corners.
Washington’s departure from north-eastern Syria leaves only a small contingent of US forces in the country – all based in a desert outpost in the country’s south-east, where their focus has increasingly turned away from Isis to Iran. In the vacuum created by the Isis rampage across both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, Iran has emerged as a prominent actor, shoring up supply lines into Syria and Lebanon, which have helped secure Assad in power.
“With these events today, we are just hopelessly exposed,” said a senior US diplomat, who declined to be named. “Everyone knows what this represents to our enemies – and that is a historical capitulation.”
In Iraq’s Kurdish north, where its leaders have remained allies of the US throughout the post-Saddam years, what to make of Washington’s new footing and how to deal with the aftermath is a pressing concern. In the Kurdish capital, Erbil, people are wondering whether they too could be cast aside.
“We can’t do it to them too,” said the US diplomat. “Not even the current administration would go for that. Surely.”