US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US is withdrawing from Syria has left many questions. Eastern Syria is a large and strategic area sandwiched between Turkey and Iraq. Historically it was also a neglected area of Syria. As the US leaves, threats of conflict hang over the millions of residents who wonder what will come next.
The area the US is leaving in eastern Syria is neatly separated from the rest of Syria by the Euphrates River. This includes the Syrian governorate of Hasakah, and parts of the governorates of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. The only exception is a small area over the Euphrates River where Manbij is located in northern Syria. This is an area of Syria that was deeply affected by the rise of ISIS in 2013. Prior to that, the Kurdish parts of this region had been neglected by the Assad government. Syria stripped 120,000 Kurds of citizenship after 1962. The Assad government has suppressed the Kurdish population with its brand of Arab nationalism, depriving many not only of citizenship, but also pushing them off their lands and seeking to settle Arabs in their place. Kurdish towns were renamed with Arabic names. The suppression created resentment that led to riots in 2004 in Qamishli.
In other areas of eastern Syria, particularly along the Euphrates River valley, a different dynamic took place. With some of the country’s only oil fields and government investment in Deir ez-Zor, some areas benefited. But other Arab tribes followed politics in neighboring Iraq, down the river, more than they focused on Damascus. Reports say that some people kept pictures of Saddam Hussein in their houses, not Assad. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, instability spread along the border with Iraq as insurgents and foreign fighters used Syria as a corridor to reach Iraq.
Baghdad complained to Damascus about the fighters streaming across the border but Syria didn’t stem the flow, either out of a desire to confront the Americans, or hoping that some of the Islamist extremists increasingly making up the rank and file of insurgents would go to Iraq and not bother the Assad regime. Blowback came Syrian civil war began, when these networks of extremists, using the Euphrates valley to move back and forth began to attack the Syrian regime. ISIS exploited this instability and rose to power in Raqqa in 2013 because of it.
Eastern Syria is a large area, more than twice the size of Israel, almost the size of West Virginia. Resource rich, it has oil in the south near the Euphrates River, and wheat and agriculture in the north along the Turkish border. But it is sparsely populated in many areas, which are desert. Overall the population is several million. It has undergone extreme change during the war with ISIS. Raqqa, liberated in the fall of 2017, still lies in ruin and bodies continue to be discovered from the conflict. OCHA, for instance, identified hundreds of thousands of people in need in eastern Syria in 2018.