U.S. Disengagement Could Jeopardize Fragile Stability in Northeast Syria

Refugees International Senior Advocate Daryl Grisgraber and Vice President for Programs and Policy Hardin Lang authored this report, which is based on their April 2018 mission to northeast Syria, Turkey, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The United States and other donors have an important opportunity to consolidate stability in northeast Syria, which has been largely liberated from the Islamic State. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have begun to return home, but much work remains to be done with major population centers like Raqqa still riddled with explosive devices and basic services still to be restored.

“Actions by the Trump administration threaten to unravel fragile progress on the ground in northeast Syria.”

Actions by the Trump administration, however, threaten to unravel fragile progress on the ground. In March, the administration froze $200 million in funding for recovery and stabilization, and President Trump announced his intention to abruptly pull U.S. troops out of this part of the country. During Refugees International’s recent mission to northeast Syria, local authorities, humanitarian groups, and displaced people all expressed deep concern over these shifts in U.S. policy.

“The humanitarian aid capacity remains inadequate for returnees and for the internally displaced Syrians in the region’s camps and informal settlements.”

In this report, Fragile Progress: Humanitarian Assistance and the Stabilization of Northeast Syria, Refugees International (RI) examines the humanitarian situation in the wake of the Islamic State’s retreat. RI’s researchers found that only a handful of aid organizations are operational in northeast Syria. These groups mostly lack a footprint in the areas hardest hit by the conflict—like Raqqa city. As a result, the humanitarian aid capacity remains inadequate for returnees and for the internally displaced people in the region’s camps and informal settlements.

Further, there was general agreement among aid workers, local leaders, and community members that an abrupt U.S. disengagement would create a dangerous vacuum – one which could lead to renewed conflict. Despite the gravity of this scenario, no serious contingency plans are in place to respond to the potential humanitarian consequences. 

Going forward, modest investments and predictable policies from donors and other international stakeholders could shore up the fragile stability of northeast Syria and meet important humanitarian needs. The U.S. role will be crucial. The Trump administration should unfreeze the full $200 million in recovery funding and step back from a precipitous disengagement. These steps are a small price to pay to consolidate gains in this strategic corner of Syria’s catastrophic civil war.