AILSA CHANG, HOST:
How is the U.S. helping shape the future of Syria? American troops and their rebel allies have nearly put an end to the Islamic State caliphate there. But that fighting has destroyed cities and raised questions about who will control big chunks of territory. And that is where American civilians come in. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters more are headed to Syria to help stabilize the country.
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JIM MATTIS: When you bring in more diplomats, they’re working that initial restoration of services. They bring in the contractors. There’s international money that’s got to be administered. That is a diplomat’s job. The military would move them around, make certain they’re protected.
CHANG: NPR’s Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, was among those questioning the defense secretary, and he’s with us now, along with NPR’s Beirut correspondent, Ruth Sherlock. Hello to both of you.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Good morning.
CHANG: Tom, let’s start with you. Do you have any sense of how many American civilians will be heading to Syria?
BOWMAN: You know, Ailsa, we don’t have a sense of that number. What we do know is there are roughly 2,000 or so U.S. troops that would help these American civilians. But this job, for State Department workers and also these contractors, will be a huge one. A lot of cities and towns have been destroyed from years of fighting. And there’s no estimate how long this will all take.
But this clearly goes beyond the initial goal the U.S. had of just defeating ISIS. Now Secretary Mattis says U.S. troops will remain to prevent what he calls the return of ISIS 2.0 and also push along the diplomatic efforts to resolve the civil war. So this goes beyond the initial plan.
CHANG: Diplomatic efforts – that almost sounds like nation-building, which President Trump has pledged not to do. I mean, he said he wants to focus on fighting terrorists. But what you’re describing doesn’t really sound like that.
BOWMAN: No, that’s absolutely right. The Pentagon, interestingly, is using the term stabilization, not even rebuilding and certainly not nation-building, which is a loaded term. But here’s the thing – besides restoring services, the U.S. and the international community will also help train local police forces, rebuild schools and work with local governments. So we’ll have to see how this all expands. But as we’ve seen elsewhere in the world, this can all lead down a slippery slope to nation-building.
BOWMAN: Now, Ailsa, it’s important to note that Syria is somewhat divided in two now. The U.S. and Russia have set up a demarcation line. Basically, everything east of the Euphrates River is being run by the U.S., its rebel allies. Everything west is being run by Russia and Syria. And – but Russia and Syrian forces are now moving east. So there could be some tensions, even skirmishes, with Syrian forces in particular. Secretary Mattis said that would be a mistake for Syrian forces to take on the U.S. forces or civilians.
CHANG: Ruth, I want to go to you now. What has been the reaction of the Syrian government and its Russian allies to Mattis’ announcement?
SHERLOCK: Well, so far, it’s been really quite muted. There’s been little from the Assad regime itself. And Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, did talk about the decision to the Interfax news agency. That’s the Russian news agency. He said it, as Tom says – you know, it went beyond the U.S. mission to fight extremists in the country. But – so he called the plan surprising.
One of the reasons this might be muted, though, is that the Syrian regime, although it clearly wants to take back its territory in the long run, may not have the military capacity to do it now. The regime has been massively weakened in the war. And so for Assad to try to take back Raqqa and these other areas whilst it’s also trying to fight on other fronts and keep hold of the territory it’s already gained – may just be too much for its weakened military forces to take.
CHANG: I also want to talk a bit about the particular area the U.S. plans to stabilize. How easy is it for these U.S. diplomats and contractors to work there?
SHERLOCK: Well, so even though ISIS has gone, there are still huge challenges on the ground. The U.S. is working with the Syrian Democratic Forces. That’s a militia that’s made up of Kurds and Arabs. But you have tensions between these ethnic groups, between these Kurds and Arabs. And these may only intensify now that the unifying kind of aim to defeat ISIS is gone.
And then if you look at Deir ez-Zor province, another part of the northeast that they’re going to try to apply this plan to, you have emerging conflicts between tribes. Some of these tribes suffered hugely under ISIS. Hundreds of their members were killed. And so now they’re talking about taking revenge on tribes who joined ISIS. So you have this risk that, just because ISIS has gone, it doesn’t mean the area’s going to be peaceful. And, you know, some people say there might be violence there for years to come. So there is a risk that, in staying, the U.S. could find itself getting dragged into these local conflicts.
CHANG: All right. That’s NPR’s Ruth Sherlock and NPR’s Tom Bowman. Thanks to both of you.
BOWMAN: You’re welcome.
SHERLOCK: Thank you.