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Syrian Kurds respond to US withdrawal plan: NPR



Syrian protesters wave a wave of national flags during a demonstration in the Kurdish majority of Qamishli town in northeastern Syria on Sunday, demanding protection for the Syrian army as Turkey threatens a new offensive following the US withdrawal decision.

Delil Souleiman / AFP / Getty Images


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Delil Souleiman / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian protesters beckons with a national flag during a demonstration in the Kurdish majority of Qamishli city in northeastern Syria Sunday, calling for the protection of the Syrian army as Turkey threatens a new offensive following the US withdrawal decision. 19659006] Delil Souleiman / AFP / Getty Images

The green landscape of northeastern Syria is home to wild ducks and donkeys, villagers caring for livestock – and US military bases with 2,200 soldiers. American soldiers are patrolling the country with armored vehicles hovering over them in Black Hawk helicopters. In the Kurdish majority, known as Rojava, cities are bursting with Christmas decorations. Almost all of the main streets in the city of Qamishli, to which many Christians belong, are adorned with Christmas lights, and shops sell tinsel and plastic trees.

But President Trump's sudden decision The withdrawal of US troops from Syria has overshadowed most of this year's celebrations. Syrians, who have welcomed the US troops here, say they are shocked and upset with the news. Some call it a "stab in the back".

This is the part of Syria where US forces have been supporting local militants to force ISIS out of almost every nearby city and town they once owned. The Syrians – led by Kurdish fighters – have lost thousands in battle, and some feel that their victims are not recognized or repaid.

This week, the NPR attempted to gain access to some US bases, but was informed that US troops were not empowered to comment. However, Syrian civilians working and living near the bases openly talked about how they felt – and many say they feel betrayed by Trump's decision.

Hatem Hassan, 37, operates a money-changing business in Qamishli. He says Trump's decision hits near home.

"If they leave, we will curse them as traitors," he says. "The Kurds helped them destroy ISIS, I have seven people in my family who fought ISIS and were killed, and they were very young, not even in their 20s."

Haji Haidar, 39, is standing in front of his blacksmith shop. Everyone here is angry and scared, he says.

"ISIS is not yet defeated, and there are still many sleeping cells to worry about," warns Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Lama al-Arian / NPR


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"ISIS is not yet defeated, and there are still many sleeper cells to worry about," warns Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Lama al-Arian / NPR

"All the work they did together, and now they go away so suddenly," he says. "I do not understand that, people are afraid that they will only sell the land to someone."

The Syrian Democratic Armed Forces, the US-backed Kurdish group, say it's hard to make a backup plan now. Two SDF spokespeople told the NPR that they had heard the news about the US withdrawal last week in the same way as everyone else: watching TV.

The SDF includes Christian fighters and commanders who can not make it home for Christmas this year for what's next.

"At this time, we are open to all options and partnerships," says SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali to NPR. "ISIS has not been defeated yet, and there are still plenty of sleeper cells to worry about."

But a revival of ISIS is not the only – or even the biggest – concern now faced by residents in northeastern Syria: they fear, above all, an attack from Turkey ,

For Syria's Kurds, who make up the bulk of the population in the northeast along the Turkish border, the missions are especially urgent US allies.

Turkey threatens to attack the Kurds here. She regards her as a terrorist because of her links to militants staging attacks in Turkey. Turkey has criticized the US for helping the Kurds to take control of the region and has stated that they could invade as soon as US forces are deposed.

If Turkey decides to invade, SDF must give up fighting ISIS, Bali says.

"It's not possible for your forces to fight ISIS while another country comes in from behind attacking your people and forces," he says.

They are looking for contingency plans, including finding a deal with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, to ask for his help to prevent Turkey from crossing the border. They could even seek local protection agreements with the Iranian armed forces in Syria.

"The Syrian regime should protect the sovereign borders of Syria," says Bali. If the regime came to northern Syria, he says, "Basically we would not mind."

Follow NPR's Lama al-Arian on Twitter @lalarian.


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