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Abandoned by the US, Syrian Kurdish leaders look to Russia and Assad



BEIRUT (Reuters) – The US decision to leave Syria is alarmed. Kurdish leaders, who rule much of the north, urge Russia and its allies, Damascus, to send forces to protect the border against a Turkish offensive.

FILE PHOTO: Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) go on the rubble of damaged shops and buildings in the city of Manbij in Aleppo (Syria), August 10, 2016. REUTERS / Rodi Said / File Photo

their demand the The return of Syrian government troops to the border, which Kurdish fighters have been holding for years, points to the depth of their crisis after US President Donald Trump made the abrupt decision to withdraw the armed forces.

While little has changed on the ground – the US forces are still in action and Trump says the retreat will be slow – Kurdish officials are seeking a strategy to secure their region before the US leaves Turkey protect.

Talks with Damascus and Moscow seem to be the focus of the Kurdish leadership. Their worst fear is the repetition of a Turkish attack that drove Kurdish residents and the YPG militia out of the city of Afrin in the northwest earlier this year.

They are also trying to convince other Western countries to fill the vacuum as Washington withdraws some 2,000 troops whose presence in northern and eastern Syria has so far deterred Turkey.

The area affected covers a quarter of Syria, most of it east of the Euphrates River, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group of rooftops dominated by the Kurdish YPG. The area borders Iraq to the east and includes three major cities – Qamishli, Hasaka and Raqqa.

(Syria's Control Areas: tmsnrt.rs/2RgCxxb)

The SDF was Washington's Syrian partner in the fight against the Islamic State, but Turkey views the YPG fighters as their backbone as a threat and vowed to destroy it you.

Northern Syria officials who traveled to Moscow last week will soon embark on another voyage and hope that Russia urges Damascus to "fulfill its sovereign duty," Kurdish politician Aldar Xelil told Reuters.

"Our contacts with Russia and the regime should seek clear mechanisms to protect the northern border," said Xelil, architect of autonomy plans in northern Syria. "We want Russia to play an important role in achieving stability."

ISLAMIC STATE THREAT

President Bashar al-Assad, who is already leading the largest part of Syria with the help of Iranian and Russian allies, has agreed to recover the SDF territory. The rich in oil, water and farmland region is considered important for the reconstruction of Syria.

Although the autonomy they seek is in conflict with Damascus, the Kurdish forces largely avoided direct conflict with the government during the war, sometimes even against common enemies. They had political talks this summer that went nowhere.

However, with Trump significantly weakening their bargaining position, the Kurdish authorities may be fighting against the clock to end a deal as Turkey threatens to launch their offensive east of the Euphrates.

Turkey regards the YPG as an extension of the banned Kurdish PKK movement that has experienced a 34-year uprising in southeastern Turkey. Ankara has called on Syrian rebel representatives to fight the YPG in the north.

Fearing that the US announcement could open Turkey's attack, the SDF warned of the threat still posed by the Islamic State. It has warned European countries that jihadists from foreign Islamic states could flee their prisons and return to home attacks.

"To fight off a Turkish attack, we are discussing various options … We have contacted Russia, France and the countries of the European Union to help," said Badran Jia Kurd, a Kurdish official who resigned last week Moscow had gone talks with representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

"It is the responsibility of the Syrian government to protect the borders of this region, and this is under discussion," he told Reuters.

POLITICAL RECRUITMENT

In the last attack on Afrin in Turkey earlier this year, the SDF felt abandoned by Russia, believing that it had given assurances that Turkey would not attack the region.

The Syrian rebels, supported by Turkey, say they mobilized to launch the next offensive, whose first target is the city of Manbij, which borders the area they control.

FILE FILE: An elderly man sits near the Syrian-Turkish border in the city of Ras al-Ayn in Syria on December 20, 2018. REUTERS / Rodi Said / File Photo

US. Armed forces are still patrolling near Manbij, and nothing has changed to this day, said Sharfan Darwish, spokesman for the SDF-affiliated Manbij Military Council, which occupies the city. But in agreement with the Council, the government and Russia sent forces near the city on Tuesday, he said.

The Syrian Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed, who held talks with Damascus earlier this year, said his contacts with the state never stopped.

"We are now in the process of starting a new initiative," she told a tribal meeting in Raqqa on Wednesday. "We will use all means to pressure this regime to reach a political agreement to uphold the dignity of Syrian citizens."

Additional coverage by Rodi Said in Syria and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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