“When trucks would show up with killed and wounded, the medics would come out [of the hospital] to assess whether they were alive or wounded,” an American volunteer working as a combat medic with the Syrian Democratic Forces told me. “And if they were alive, we would bring them in for triage, and then we would take them in for triage and treatment. The situation deteriorated rapidly. At the first triage point, they would get preliminary treatment, and they were brought to us for higher care. That deteriorated. The triage point was air-striked by the Turkish armed forces two days ago.”
I will call this source “Dave.”
The American volunteer, who has been in northern Syria for five months, spoke to me on condition of anonymity. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led, multi-ethnic militia that has held northeastern Syria for roughly the past four years, was up until a week ago the United States’ primary ally in the fight against ISIS — or, we were their primary ally. Following the pullout of American troops announced on Sunday, the Syrian Defense Forces hastily entered into an alliance with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad as its best option for repelling a Turkish invasion from the north. The sudden withdrawal of US forces puts American volunteers in a legally tenuous position.
Dave has been working out of the main hospital in Sari Kani (or Ras al-Ain, as it’s known in Arabic). On Sunday, he said, they received orders to evacuate the hospital because the fighting was so close, but the following day the order was reversed. As the Turkish offensive goes into its seventh day on Wednesday, Sari Kani is among the few cities in northern Syria that remains under control of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
“The fighting is extraordinarily intense and extraordinarily desperate,” Dave told me on Monday. “Through a lot of sacrifice, the SDF has been able to mostly secure the city. There has been fighting directly outside of the hospital.”
Knowing Dave’s interest in the Syrian Civil War and sympathies for the Kurds, I texted him on Signal — an encrypted text, voice and video app — on Oct. 12 to ask if he would recommend any sources of information on the Turkish offensive.
On Sunday at about 7:20 p.m. — 2:20 a.m. on Monday in Syria — I received a response.
“I’m here,” he said. He continued, “We just evacuated Sari Kani. I just helped drive ambulances full of civilians wounded in an airstrike, and I want to talk about it.”
Early Monday afternoon — around 9 p.m. in Syria — I received a call on Signal from Dave.
Dave said while his combat medic group was evacuating patients from the hospital in Sari Kani, they passed a convoy of civilian vehicles heading into the city. As soon as they reached their destination, another hospital about 12 miles away, they learned the convoy had been hit. Fifteen minutes later, medics started pulling the killed and wounded off flatbed trucks and putting them in an ambulance. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bombing killed 19 people, including 15 civilians and two local reporters.
The tanks, artillery and aircraft engaged in assaulting Sari Kani and other Syrian cities is Turkish, but Dave told me that the vast majority of ground forces fighting against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are Syrian proxies who fight under the name of the Free Syrian Army.
“It feels like ISIS, but with airstrikes in terms of their tactics and strategy, and treatment of civilians,” Dave said.
His assessment is shared by US military officials, according to media reports. On Sunday, NBC quoted unnamed US officials as saying the Turkish-backed militias “include al-Qaida and ISIS supporters,” while reporting that three Kurdish prisons holding ISIS fighters came under attack over the past weekend. A report in Foreign Policy on Monday quoted US officials as saying that the Free Syrian Army was deliberately releasing ISIS fighters.
These reports directly rebut President Trump’s tweet suggesting that the “Kurds may be releasing some [of the ISIS prisoners] to get us involved.”
Fighters with the Free Syrian Army are accused of striking brutality. Videos have circulated showing civilians, including a prominent Kurdish politician, being pulled from vehicles and executed by members of the Free Syrian Army, according to Syrian Democratic Forces. The Free Syrian Army has denied responsibility.
Despite the horrific toll of the war, Dave told me he has seen the Kurds’ determination firsthand: He said he has had to stop patients from pulling bandages off so they could go back out and fight.
“These people are fighting for their homes,” he said. “The reason why this is being called a war of genocide and displacement is there is no place for them to go. It’s not just Kurds; it’s also Syrians and Armenians. It’s a multi-ethnic and pluralist society. That’s what makes this region so important.”
Dave’s admiration for the Kurds’ multi-ethnic model of shared governance is matched only by his dismay at the decision by President Trump to withdraw support, and re-activate ISIS. “To say this will destabilize the region — the region is already destabilized,” Dave said. “Hell’s empty, and the devils are here. This should remind people how precarious our neoliberal capitalist modernity is. This is happening because of our position as a superpower and because we have a leader as fickle as Trump.”