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Syria’s Kurds, feeling betrayed by the U.S., ask Assad government for protection

Syria’s Kurds, feeling betrayed by the U.S., ask Assad government for protection
World
BEIRUT—Feeling betrayed by the United States, its Kurdish allies in Syria asked the Syrian government on Friday to protect them from possible attack by Turkey.

The request surprised some U.S. officials and could help open the way for the forces of President Bashar Assad of Syria, backed by Russia and Iran, to start retaking the Kurdish-held part of the country near Turkey’s border. That would be a big step toward Assad’s goal of reclaiming all of Syria, upended by almost eight years of war.

In this March 31 photo, a Syrian woman with her kids walks in front of buildings that were destroyed during the battle between the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Manbij, north Syria. On Friday, Syria’s military said it entered the flashpoint Kurdish-held town of Manbij, where Turkey has threatened an offensive — a claim that was refuted by U.S. troops who patrol the town.  (Hussein Malla / Associated Press)

It was also the first sign that President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement last week that he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria was not only shifting alliances in the conflict but directly benefiting Assad — a brutal autocrat once described by Trump as an “animal” responsible for chemical attacks and other atrocities.

U.S.-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, said the Syrian government should send troops to the city of Manbij, near the Turkish border.

The request amounted to a U.S. ally calling on an enemy of the United States to protect it from another American ally, Turkey.

Syrian Kurdish-led fighters take Hajin, last town held by Daesh

The Kurdish militias are regarded by Turkey as dangerous autonomy-minded insurgents. The United States regards them as valuable partners in helping rout Islamic State extremists from Syria — the original purpose of the U.S. military deployment four years ago.

Although the U.S. troops in Syria number only about 2,000, they have been a deterrent to an assault on the Kurdish militias by the Turks. The U.S. presence also discouraged Assad’s forces from sweeping into the area even as they retook major areas elsewhere from anti-government fighters, often with the support of Russia and Iran.

With the request for help Friday, the Kurds invited Assad into at least some of those areas he had coveted.

Some U.S. officials were taken aback by the Kurdish announcement, voicing frustration and anger to their Kurdish counterparts, according to a senior U.S. official. There was no consultation or coordination, the official said.

While the United States understands the Kurdish motivation to open discussions with the Assad government, the official said, the Kurdish position did not necessarily reflect views of Arab members of the Kurdish-Arab coalition fighting the Islamic State in eastern Syria, and said it amounted to a unilateral bargaining gambit.

The Kurdish-led militias control about one-quarter of Syria’s territory, including valuable agricultural land and oil reserves in the north and east of the country.

Kurdish control is opposed not only by the Turks, but also by the government of Assad as well as its Russian and Iranian backers, who want the territory to fall back under the control of Damascus.

Trump’s surprise announcement that he would pull U.S. troops had raised fears of a scramble by competing forces to exploit the resulting vacuum.

Through their alliance with the United States, Syria’s Kurds gained unprecedented military and political power during the war. As Islamic State fighters were pushed back, the Kurds often filled the political gap left behind, establishing councils to run local affairs.

But aware that the United States could eventually withdraw, they also began talks with the Syrian government about reconciling.

Abdulkarim Omar, a foreign relations official with the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria, said by phone Friday that the talks continued and the only issue that had been agreed upon so far was the Syrian army deployment near Manbij after the Americans withdraw.

When asked if that agreement had been co-ordinated with the United States, he said: “You can ask the Americans.”

But much remains uncertain for the Syrians living in those areas, especially since the two parties to the agreement described it in different ways. The Kurds said the Syrian army would take over border only areas to protect against a Turkish attack, but would not deploy inside the city itself.

The areas run by the Kurds in Syria have long stood apart in the conflict. They had hoped, with their American friends, to pioneer an alternative model for Syria’s future.

While none of the other powers fighting in Syria liked the situation, they mostly avoided attacking the area for fear of provoking the United States. Now, with that deterrent set to end, the future of the northeast is up in the air.

Those most likely to gain, analysts say, are the Syrian government and its allies, who want to bring the northeast back under the control of Damascus, both for the good of Assad and for their own interests.

Russia would like to see Assad regain control of Syria’s oil reserves to help finance the country’s reconstruction, while Iran wants to geographically connect forces it supports in Syria and Lebanon with those in Iraq.

“An American withdrawal from Syria is the equivalent of handing Syria on a silver plate to Iran and its militias,” said Muhannad al-Talaa, the commander of an Arab militia near the U.S. military base at al-Tanf, near the Iraqi border. “If the U.S. withdraws and we are forced to leave, Iran will have a steady supplies route through Iraq to its militias and Hezbollah in Syria.”

A swift U.S. withdrawal could also benefit the remnants of the Islamic State. While the organization has lost nearly all the territory it once held, experts estimate it still has thousands of fighters who have returned to their insurgent roots and can still mount attacks.

If the local forces fighting the jihadis lose their U.S. battlefield commanders, they would be forced to rely on the small cadre of British and French forces still in Syria, which could cause confusion, experts say.

Although Trump initially lobbied to pull U.S. troops out in 30 days, the Pentagon has pushed for a withdrawal that could take months, citing the danger to U.S. forces if ordered to dismantle their outposts quickly.

It is also possible that the Pentagon will allow Kurdish militia fighters to keep at least some of their American-supplied weapons, a U.S. defence official said, despite assurances to Turkey last year that the armaments would be repossessed when combat operations concluded.
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