WASHINGTON — US commandos were working alongside Kurdish forces at an outpost in eastern Syria last year when they were attacked by columns of Syrian government tanks and hundreds of troops, including Russian mercenaries. In the next hours, the Americans threw the Pentagon’s arsenal at them, including B-52s. The attack was stopped.
That operation, in the middle of the US-led campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria, showed the extent to which the US military was willing to protect the Syrian Kurds, its main ally on the ground.
But now, with the White House revoking protection for these fighters, some of the Special Forces officers who battled alongside the Kurds say they feel deep remorse at orders to abandon their allies.
“They trusted us and we broke that trust,” one Army officer who has worked alongside the Kurds in northern Syria said last week in a telephone interview. “It’s a stain on the American conscience.”
“I’m ashamed,” said another officer who had also served in northern Syria. Both officers spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals from their chains of command.
Later Sunday, the Kurds and the Syrian government announced an alliance.
And the response from the Kurds themselves was just as stark. “The worst thing in military logic and comrades in the trench is betrayal,” said Shervan Darwish, an official allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The next flurry of orders from Washington, some fear, could pull US troops out of Syria altogether. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Sunday that roughly 1,000 US troops in northeastern Syria would conduct a “deliberate withdrawal,” at least farther south — and possibly out of the country entirely in the coming days and weeks.
The defense secretary’s statement came after comments Friday pushing back on complaints that the United States was betraying allies in Syria — “We have not abandoned the Kurds” — even as he acknowledged that his Turkish counterpart had ignored his plea to stop the offensive.
Army Special Forces soldiers — mostly members of the Third Special Forces Group — moved last week to consolidate their positions in the confines of their outposts miles away from the Syrian border, a quiet withdrawal that all but confirmed the United States’ capitulation to the Turkish military’s offensive to clear Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
But as the Americans pulled back, the Kurds moved north to try to reinforce their comrades fighting the offensive. The US soldiers could only watch from their sandbag-lined walls. Orders from Washington were simple: Hands off. Let the Kurds fight for themselves.
The orders contradicted the US military’s strategy in Syria over the last four years, especially when it came to the Kurdish fighters, known as the YPG, who were integral to routing the Islamic State group from northeastern Syria. The Kurds had fought in Manbij, Raqqa, and deep into the Euphrates River Valley, hunting the last Islamic State fighters in the group’s now defunct physical caliphate. But the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, as the Kurdish and their allied Arab fighters on the ground are called, are being left behind.
US Special Forces and other troops had built close ties with their Kurdish allies, living on the same dusty compounds, sharing meals and common dangers. They fought side by side and helped evacuate Kurdish dead and wounded from the battlefield.
“When they mourn, we mourn with them,” General Joseph L. Votel, a former head of the military’s Central Command, said Thursday at the Middle East Institute.
SDF commanders had worked side by side with US military officers in a joint command center in a defunct cement factory near the northern Syrian town of Kobani, where they discussed strategy and planned future operations.
The battle of Kobani that began in 2014 gave birth to the United States’ ties to the Kurds in northeastern Syria. ISIS fighters, armed with heavy American-made artillery captured from retreating Iraqi army units, surrounded Kobani, a Kurdish city.
The United States carried out airstrikes against advancing ISIS militants, and its military aircraft dropped ammunition, small arms, and medical supplies to replenish the Kurdish combatants.
That aid helped turn the tide, and the Kurds defeated ISIS. US commanders realized they had discovered a valuable ally in the fight against the terrorist group.
Thousands of SDF fighters received training from the United States in battlefield tactics, reconnaissance, and first aid. Reconnaissance teams learned to identify Islamic State locations and transmit them to the command center for the US-led military coalition to plan airstrikes.
Visitors to front-line SDF positions often saw Syrian officers with iPads and laptops they used to communicate information to their US colleagues.
“For the last two years, the coordination was pretty deep,” said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based Kurdish affairs analyst who has spent time in northeastern Syria. “The mutual trust was very high, the mutual confidence, because this collaboration brought enormous results.”
“They completed each other,” he said of the SDF and US-led coalition. “The coalition didn’t have boots on the ground, and fighters didn’t have air support, so they needed each other.”