Last month, President Donald Trump proudly declared victory over the Islamic State militant group in his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Now, a veteran foreign correspondent on the ground is sounding the alarm, cautioning the move will enable the return of terrorism within the region and abroad.
CBS News’ Charlie D’Agata has spent the past week in the front-line village of Ash Sha’Fah, following the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces as they fight what has been dubbed the “final battle” against ISIS, a last-ditch effort to quash the terror group for good before the U.S. departs. It’s a title tinged with both hope and desperation.
Americans have been backing SDF with weapons, equipment and air power, but once they leave, D’Agata predicts trouble.
“Absolutely [the SDF will] be under threat,” he said in an exclusive interview with HuffPost on Friday. “They’re in for the worst around here.”
The fear, D’Agata said, is that SDF may fall under attack from Turkey, which sees the Kurds as sworn enemies of the country.
The risk could eventually force SDF’s alliance of militias to seek the help of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.
“They feel that if the U.S. withdraws, they’ll be abandoned, and they might even have to do a deal with President Assad’s regime because they have to protect themselves,” D’Agata explained, noting Turkish-backed forces are already present in northern Syria.
While Turkey claims it will drive ISIS out from the remaining 1 percent of land left in its control, the nation’s forces don’t hold a candle to the mostly Kurdish militias leading SDF, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG for short.
Emphasizing the dramatic difference, D’Agata said that when it comes to the Turkish forces already present in Syria, “they don’t have a fraction of the capabilities that the YPG has” in terms of military hardware, support and overwatch given by the U.S.
Trump appears firm in his decision to withdraw. But critics of his decision point to a recent terror attack that killed at least 16 people, four of whom were Americans, last Wednesday in the northern city of Manbij, arguing that ISIS is still a threat.
“There have been serious questions,” D’Agata said of the pullout.
While SDF has proved itself to be a strong force, “they need military support, surveillance intelligence,” he added. “They simply can’t do it without America’s air canopy.”
D’Agata said news of Trump’s move was met with utter astonishment from militias continuing to battle what’s left of ISIS.
“People were shocked, disappointed, confused. They are cornering the last remaining fighters and they’re worried about what might happen without U.S. support there.”
But they’re not the only ones voicing concern. American military officials also reportedly oppose the move, along with Israelis, U.S. evangelicals who generally favor Trump, and numerous senators including presidential ally Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stands to gain more power in the region with the departure of U.S. troops, has praised Trump’s decision.
The real solution, D’Agata explained, wasn’t as simple as whittling down ISIS’s territorial control to the 1 percent that Trump has touted as a success.
“If the U.S. withdraws, it will embolden ISIS … and they will re-emerge,” he said. “There are a lot of ISIS sympathizers in the region. You can take away their territory, but they still exist.”
Though there is no definitive answer on just how fast they’d spring back, D’Agata said it’s likely.
But Americans are paying less attention to Syria now, presenting another obstacle for reporters as they try to spotlight the ongoing conflict.
“My colleagues and [I] have invested so much time and effort in covering this region,” D’Agata said. “There’s a huge domestic news cycle, and we appreciate that … we understand that.”
However, he said, it is indeed a domestic issue in terms of the potential for terror threats at home. And it has affected him.
“I’ve never been so emotionally moved by the stories of the victims of ISIS and those fighting against them,” he said. “It’s personal.”
D’Agata, who has reported from Syria on more than a dozen occasions, was featured last week on “CBS Evening News” with Jeff Glor and “CBS This Morning.”