Soldier: U.S. making difference in Syrian effort

Michael Foster listens as his interpreter translates during a meeting with town elders in the community where his unit helped build a school.
Staff Writer

U.S. aid is making a difference to the Syrian Defense Force and other resistance trying to free areas held by the ISIS terrorist groups and supported by Syrian President Bashar Assad regime.

That's the opinion of Golden Triangle resident Michael Foster who just returned from 10 months in the country as part of an Army special operations detachment taking part in Operation Inherent Resolve. Foster's 40-person group is based in Jackson and was assigned in small units to different parts of the country.

"You can see the progress in a couple of towns near the areas where we were working," Foster said, referring to an area in northern Syria.

"The Kurdish people are actually rebuilding, new road construction, new buildings...ISIS left a scorched-earth policy. Some significant indicators of the areas being taken back are children in schools and shops opening up, active commerce. You won't invest in a business if you think it is just going to get blown up," Foster described.

"And you would see kids with Dora the Explorer backpacks, lots of images of Western civilization," he continued.

Much of the work the U.S. and some of its allies have been doing in Syria for more than two years has gone largely unnoticed. As of now, more than 2,000 military personnel are in Syria serving in a variety of advisory or security roles, according to the military.

Foster returned home just days before a Feb. 7 attack on Syrian opposition forces supported by U.S. advisors in the Deir-el-Zour Province. U.S.-led coalition forces responded with missile and airstrikes against troops loyal to the Syrian president and what are thought to have been Russian mercenaries.

After moving to his assignment in northern Syria in October, Foster met with the local commander of the Syrian resistance who wanted help from Foster's contingent moving two buildings to create a school.

But when the Americans inspected the two concrete buildings, they found one housed a chicken coop and the other was home to a herd of goats.

"We told them they weren't suitable for a school. They were too heavy and too messed up," Foster said.

"But we had a bridge company, a group of engineers nearby, with a crane. We took two 40-foot shipping containers and made them into a school. We spent a day cutting and welding and made the school for about 50 kids.

"We handed out candy, Christmas stockings, stuffed animals, all kinds of things. We had a Catholic priest in our camp who had all kinds of stuff shipped to him," Foster explained of the December project.

"It was something special to see the kids' expression. Helping with the kind of rebuilding is how we can turn that country around," the Columbus resident continued, noting a civil affairs team for which Foster's contingent provided security worked with that school and other community projects in the region.

While Syria, Turkey and the areas around them have been in turmoil for thousands of years, some of today's problems were made worse after World War I when the U.S. and European allies established national boundaries with little respect for cultures or nationalities. The Kurds, who have been among the biggest U.S. allies for almost 30 years, have been pushed out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, although  the group numbers more than 40 million.

"The Kurds are the largest group of people in the world without a country," Foster stated. "When you look at Syria and Iraq, the greatest luck we've had fighting ISIS and others has been with Kurdish. There are Kurdistan flags everywhere."

During some of his outreach efforts in the communities where they worked, Foster found the differences in political understandings striking.

"In the town where we built the school, we did a community engagement. They had no idea what the word democracy meant. We talked about it and they were pretty excited by the concept," Foster recalled.

"They don't want to secede from Syria or anything like that. They just want to be recognized, they want to have a voice, a seat at the table, a chance to have a say and have their concerns respected.

They don't want to overthrow Assad, they just don't think anyone should be in power that long," Foster explained, relating it to the way states elect representatives to Congress.

While progress is being made, where it all will end up is the "million dollar question," Foster admits.

"Whether ISIS rebrands itself and appears down the line as something else or in some other country or countries is anybody's guess. That's the nature of the war on terror. An insurgency, a non-traditional enemy, may pop up's an ever- changing battlefield that we'll probably be fighting in some way for awhile."

In Syria, the future is improving. But it still will depend on what happens with President Assad's regime.

"Who knows? If it stabilizes, then it should be fine. Even Iraq has stabilized to some degree, is having elections," he concluded, referring to the country where the United States has spent 30 years trying to build a democracy and peace.