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U.S. exit from Syria would heighten need for humanitarian aid

 Displaced Syrian girls lean on a cistern during rainy weather at a camp for Syrian displaced people near the Syrian-Turkish border in the Northern countryside of Idlib.
Girls at a camp for displaced Syrian people near the Syrian–Turkish border in Idlib, on Dec. 4. Photo: Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty Images

The sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria that Trump has called for, potentially within as little as 30 days, would pose severe humanitarian risks.

Why it matters: The power vacuum created by an abrupt U.S. disengagement could spark a new round of fighting, which in turn will disrupt and displace communities. The result could be an even worse humanitarian crisis in a country where some 11 million people have fled their homes and more than half a million people in the northeast alone are already receiving some form of humanitarian assistance.

The withdrawal could allow for a revival of the Islamic State, which remains active in the area and a re-assertion of control by Assad in Syria’s northeast. On Thursday, Turkey threatened to launch new incursions against the Kurds in the same region. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Manbij and elsewhere in the northeast could incentivize Turkey to push even father into Syrian territory, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

In southern Syria, over 40,000 Syrians who fled the Assad regime are sheltering in squalid conditions in the makeshift camp of Rukban close by the American base at Tanf. If U.S. troops pull out, Rukban’s inhabitants will once again be at the regime’s mercy.

Where it stands: The UN has a very light footprint in northeast Syria, and only a handful of international aid and local organizations are operating in communities ravaged by the Islamic State. None of them are resourced to respond to another major outbreak of violence.

  • Cities like Raqqa, the terrorist group’s former capital, remain largely destroyed. Efforts to help these communities recover are very much a work in progress.
  • The State Department is preparing to evacuate U.S. aid workers and diplomats in northeast Syria. Other relief groups could also follow suit. The result will be reduced humanitarian capacity at a time when more is urgently needed.

The bottom line: An abrupt U.S. disengagement will have significant consequences for civilians in areas where U.S. forces are present. Before any withdrawal goes forward, plans must be in place to minimize the humanitarian consequences of the ensuing instability.

Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.