By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
In August of 2017, I met a Syrian mother in a camp for the displaced fleeing Raqqa. She had fled ISIS several weeks earlier while more than eight months pregnant. To pay the smuggler, she sold everything she had plus her gold, risking the lives of all her children just to escape the hell that was life under ISIS.
All she wanted now, she said, was to live in peace and some kind of stability. And she said she was so very thankful to the U.S. and the counter-ISIS coalition for getting rid of ISIS.
"There was no other way," she said to me when I saw her four months later in January, and asked her about the air strikes, which leveled her city. "[ISIS fighters] were willing to die."
When I saw her again at the same camp — now nearly doubled in size — this past August, she said she still was thankful for the international community’s presence — limited though it is — in northeast Syria. Her family still lives in a double-wide tent, but her kids can go to school and that’s a blessing. They don’t have enough money to replace their house, but she was still hoping for peace in Raqqa. Something different from what she had.
Today, as the White House plans a full troop withdrawal from Syria, I remember her plea: Do not abandon us. Syrians will do the work to rebuild, she said, but we cannot do this if the world turns away. ISIS will come back. And everything we have worked for will be destroyed again.
The U.S. decision in northeast Syria is, in the end, not about troop levels or the number of uniforms delivered to U.S.-backed forces. It is not about Turkish, Iranian, Russian or Syrian regime statements. Or deals. It is about moms like this whose lives landed on the front lines of the fight against extremism. They want exactly what we talk about here in the U.S.: to give their kids a chance at something better. Only they have terrorists in their backyards and any number of regional and global players waiting for a chance to use the region as a geopolitical bargaining chip.
This is a quest that should concern every single person who cares about the generational fight against terror and for global security and stability. And it is why the decision to remove U.S. troops — who, with a light footprint have played a very large role in cementing the fragile stability I have seen over the past year with my own eyes— matters so very much. It is not simply about great powers. It is about battling moms and dads waging their own very personal fight against extremism, from the ground level, every single day.
I’ve had the privilege of traveling to northeast Syria five times since that first visit in August 2017 for my next book, which shares the story of the all-women Syrian Kurdish — and now Arab — forces on the front lines of the fight with the Islamic State. And in the process I have met so many mothers who are fighting their own battles — urgent battles — to keep their kids away from the ideology, cruelty and extremism that surrounds them.
One mother I have visited three times since April of this year talked to me about how ISIS fighters lived in her building. The kids of the ISIS fighters would talk to her kids and try to recruit them to their ideas, she told me while sitting in her newly opened shop in Raqqa. She said she upset her children by forcing them back indoors — but she needed to protect them. She talked to me about the fear she felt that those other kids would woo her little ones and how vigilant it made her about keeping them home, away from school, away from neighbors in the building, away from anything that would put their vicious extremism within range of her daughters.
Teachers in Raqqa are also on the front lines of this ideology battle. They try to educate children who have witnessed beheadings and hangings. Some kids have been forced to witness films of beheadings played on a loop, their lives consumed by hatred and fear. In the face of these challenges, teachers have to work extraordinarily hard to teach not just reading and math, but kindness and hope and opportunity. ISIS understood that these young foot soldiers were their future cannon fodder. And that security, normalcy, and teetering fragility were their enemies.
The decision to exit northeast Syria has profound implications on a variety of levels. Policy folks will tell you it could dramatically alter the balance of power in the region, with gains for nations including Russia and Iran. Military experts will tell you about how this decision will imperil other coalition forces and those left to keep ISIS under control. But along with these calculations, we cannot lose sight of the way this decision will impact the mothers and sons and daughters and fathers still there in the region who have no place else to go — folks who face the highest stakes as their livelihoods and lives hang in the balance. Their fight is ours.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.