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Syrian Kurds see American betrayal and warn fight against ISIS is now in doubt

A view of Qamishli, the base of the Kurdish administration in northeast Syria. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post)

BEIRUT — For the past five years, Syrian Kurds have stood alongside the United States in its effort to vanquish the Islamic State, in the process securing control over a vast area of Syria they hoped would form the nucleus of an autonomous Kurdish region.

The unexpected announcement by President Trump that he will draw down the U.S. military presence in Syria to make way for Turkish troops was greeted by the Kurds as a betrayal of the trust established during the fight, which has cost the lives of more than 12,000 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the joint Kurdish-Arab militia formed to battle the militants.

It remains unclear how extensive the U.S. troop drawdown or a Turkish incursion will be. A small number of U.S. troops pulled out Tuesday from two observation posts on the Turkish border, in the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, that were established this year in an effort to create a buffer zone along the border in cooperation with Turkey.

The U.S. said Oct. 6 it was pulling troops from northeast Syria, in a major shift which clears the way for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish-led forces. (Video: Reuters)

From Turkey’s perspective, the U.S. partnership with the Kurds has always represented an affront to its decades-old NATO alliance with the United States. The People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish group that dominates the SDF, is closely affiliated with the Kurdish PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is labeled a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.

For the Kurds, the decision to permit Turkey to invade marked the latest in a long history of betrayals of Kurdish aspirations by the international community, which started when they were denied their own state in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran in the wake of World War I.

“Our brave men and women with the Syrian Democratic ­Forces have just won a historic victory over the ISIS ‘caliphate,’ a victory announced by President Trump and celebrated across the world. To abandon us now would be tragic,” the Syrian Democratic Coalition, the political wing of the SDF, said in a statement.

Kurdish officials say they are hoping they can prevent, or at least delay, a full departure of U.S. troops from Syria. A complete withdrawal would leave the Kurds at the mercy not only of invading Turks to the north but also of Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian troops to the south, while facing the efforts of the Islamic State to reconstitute its insurgency.

Trump has vowed twice before to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, only to run into stiff resistance from members of his administration. The last time he said forces would leave, nearly a year ago, the Pentagon halved the number of troops, but administration officials managed to secure an extension for 1,000 to remain, pending the negotiation of a wider settlement to the Syrian war.

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“Maybe the situation could still change,” said Badran Jia Kurd, a senior Kurdish official. “We believe it is not too late for the decision to change.”

U.S. and Kurdish officials say it is their understanding that U.S. troops will remain in Syria south of the area along the border that Turkey is threatening to invade. Outside this border zone are overwhelmingly Arab areas where the risk of an Islamic State comeback is most grave. They include the city of Raqqa, formerly the Islamic State’s “capital”; the province of Deir al-Zour; and the al-Hol detention camp, where tens of thousands of women and children who lived under ISIS are held.

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It is hard to envision how the United States could sustain a presence in Syria in partnership with the Kurds if the Kurds are embroiled in conflict with Turkey, an American NATO ally, analysts and officials said. 

The Kurds left no doubt that the partnership is now in question. Although the SDF has not withdrawn any fighters from the essential duty of guarding Islamic State captives, it has relocated some of its best fighters to the Turkish border in case of a Turkish incursion, an SDF official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

The SDF has no choice but to put a higher priority on defending the lands it controls against Turkish troops than on fighting the Islamic State, said SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel.

“The military forces we have in Deir al-Zour and Raqqa — if necessary we are going to mobilize them to counter any Turkish attack,” he said. “We are not going to accept any Turkish invasion, and we are going to use all our resources.”

“We are very disappointed. I don’t think we will be able to concentrate on fighting Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. 

In its statement, the Syrian Democratic Coalition warned, “To disregard our partnership would also send a clear signal to all would-be partner forces of the United States that a U.S. alliance may not be trustworthy.”

In August, Kurdish officials and residents told The Post about rising tension and fear among the more than 70,000 residents of Syria's al-Hol displacement camp. (Video: The Washington Post)

That signal is likely to resonate in the overwhelmingly Arab areas where it is assumed U.S. troops will remain, said Hassan Hassan, of the Center for Global Policy, who is from Deir al-Zour. Even if U.S. troops decide to remain in Syria, many Arabs are likely to question how long they will stay and the prudence of aligning with a power that may abruptly leave.

To the west and the south, Syrian government troops, backed by Iran and Russia, are also poised to intervene in areas now controlled by the U.S. military, in accordance with President Bashar al-Assad’s stated goal of bringing all of Syria back under government authority.

Arabs living under U.S. and Kurdish control are now likely to be further deterred from cooperating with the SDF and the Americans, Hassan said. “It changes the game almost completely,” he said. “Before, they were hedging their bets with the United States. Now, they will see that it is Turkey that is ascendant.”

The Turks are the immediate concern for the Kurds, said Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the overall SDF commander. The area the Turkish troops are threatening to enter contains a substantial population of Kurds as well as Arabs. Erdogan has said he intends to relocate to the area up to 1 million Syrian refugees, most of them Arabs, in what Mazloum said would amount to “ethnic cleansing.”

“If ethnic cleansing happens in our area, or they kill Kurds and bring Arabs in, this will be the U.S.’s responsibility,” Mazloum said

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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