SUN 24 - 3 - 2019
Apr 12, 2018
The Daily Star
Portraits of those on the front lines of the war in Syria
One face of the war in Syria that Americans don’t often see is the U.S. Army trauma surgeon, standing in the midday sun on the outskirts of Raqqa, taking a brief break from her near-constant duty in the operating room treating Syrians whose limbs have been shattered by bombs and booby traps.
The doctor is a lieutenant colonel serving with U.S. special operations forces, and under the ground rules for my four-day trip to Syria in February, I’m not allowed to use her name. She’s a trim, clear-eyed woman who speaks with a soft, firm voice and a conviction about her work that melts your heart when you listen to her talk.
All day, every day, she tries to put broken bodies back together. When I spoke with her, she was the only experienced trauma surgeon in the region, which meant that all the worst cases came to her. She described operating on all four limbs of some severely wounded Syrians. She recalled one especially horrible day when nine injured children were brought into her operating room at one time.
Her patients are almost all Syrian civilians, people who have been maimed by hidden IEDs and bombs as they tried to return to their homes after Raqqa was liberated last October in a bloody, house-to-house fight by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and their American allies. The lieutenant colonel says that a dozen times a week, she treats people who are at “death’s door.” She says that she’s able to save 95 percent of her patients.
And here’s the most striking fact: this military surgeon is grateful for the chance to be in Syria and help put the people and their country back together. “In the States, if I didn’t show up for my job, someone else would do it. Doing what you’ve been trained to do, and contributing to something greater than yourself, is very important. It’s an honor for us to be here.”
The lieutenant colonel is part of the Syria mission that U.S President Donald Trump seems determined to end. Reflecting on her and the scores of other U.S. soldiers I’ve met on three trips to Syria since 2016, I can’t help thinking that there’s something about this mission – which has been low cost and high success, according to commanders – that President Trump doesn’t understand.
So before U.S. forces start coming home, here are a few portraits from my notebook, sketched during my trip to Syria two months ago. Let’s start with the on-the-ground commander of U.S. forces inside Syria. He’s been working with the Syrian Kurds for nearly four years since the battle for Kobani in October 2014. U.S. commanders saw that the Kurds were ready to fight and die against Daesh (ISIS). What emerged was a brotherhood of battle.
The commander is driving our vehicle along a rutted track near a front-line position outside Manbij, in northern Syria. He seems to know every curve and bump in the road, and he speaks Arabic, too. He has lived this war. When I ask how the pieces of the Syria puzzle will eventually fit he responds: “There’s not a military answer to that question.”
We’re at the berm at the eastern front, near Shaddadi; Daesh forces are hidden about two miles away. U.S. and SDF troops man a simple, makeshift fortification, topped by an observation post shielded by a tin roof and oriental carpets. Down below are two trenches to stop car bombs.
Walking away, I talk to a sergeant major who’s traveling here with one of the commanders. He’s older than most of the other soldiers, who joke that it’s dangerous to be near him, because he’s a bullet magnet. He has four purple hearts, all earned in Iraq, and six bronze stars. I ask how he was wounded. He pauses, scratching his head as if to think. One was a mortar round, another was a hand grenade, a third was hand-to-hand combat when he was attacked by a man dressed like a woman, a fourth was when he was shot in a helicopter.
Why does he keep coming back, for deployment after deployment? He pauses, not sure how to answer, and then says simply that he’s lucky to serve his country.
I’m flying out of Syria on a C-130 cargo plane. Sitting next to me is a young officer who’s upset to be on that flight, for two reasons. He’s going home to see his mother, who’s very ill. And he’s leaving his comrades on the battlefield before the fight is over. He hates that last idea. So should we all.
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 11, 2018, on page 7.
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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