Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Turkey-backed fighters prepare to replace US forces in Syria - AP and Israel Hayom Staff

by AP and Israel Hayom Staff

Kurdish-led forces face a triple threat from the Syrian government, the Islamic State group and Turkey.

U.S. troops based around the Syrian town of Manbij speak with residents, Sunday
Photo: The Military Council of Manbij City via AP 

Turkish-backed fighters said Monday they are preparing to move into Kurdish-controlled eastern Syria alongside Turkish troops once U.S. forces withdraw. Those fighters are already massing on the front line of a town held by the Kurdish-led forces.

The U.S. pullout, announced by President Donald Trump last week, will leave the oil-rich eastern third of Syria up for grabs. It is currently controlled by Kurdish-led forces that the Americans have backed over the past four years, with multiple parties seeking to move in. The Kurds now face a triple threat from the Syrian government, Islamic State and Turkey, which views them as terrorists because of their links to a Kurdish insurgent group inside Turkey.

Youssef Hammoud, spokesman for Turkey-backed Syrian opposition groups, said they have up to 15,000 trained fighters ready to deploy alongside Turkish forces, and they are already preparing to move into Manbij, a Kurdish-administered town in northern Syria where U.S. troops are based.

Hammoud said there is "no alternative" to Turkish forces and their allies replacing U.S troops.

"We are ready to fight Daesh [Islamic State]," Hammond said, although Islamic State militants are largely confined to a remote desert enclave hundreds of miles southeast of Manbij.

Ilham Ahmed, a Syrian Kurdish official, said the Kurdish-led forces are now reaching out for potential new allies, underscoring the dire situation the group now finds itself in.

"We will deal with whoever can protect the stability of this country," she said.

Ahmed said her forces are talking with the Russians and the Syrian government – both rivals of the United States – as well as European countries about ways to deal with the U.S. withdrawal. She did not elaborate.

Abandoned by the U.S., the Kurds are confronting the dilemma of whether to try to hold on to the 30% of Syria they wrested from Islamic State. The territory includes some of the richest oil fields in northern and eastern Syria but also is home to large Arab populations.

The Kurds could pull back to the Kurdish-majority region in the far northeast but that would leave resources and Kurdish-majority pockets in the east isolated and vulnerable.

The Kurdish militia could also negotiate with Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, allowing a return of government forces back into the east in the hope of gaining a measure of self-rule for Kurds. The government has so far rejected the notion of such autonomy.

Syrian government forces have reportedly been massing troops in Deir el-Zour province, across the Euphrates River from Kurdish-held territory.

On Monday, Iraq said it could consider deploying troops inside Syria to protect Iraq from threats across its borders. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said his government is "considering all the options."

Trump has said the withdrawal of some 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria will be slow and will be coordinated with Turkey. He did not provide a timetable.

Turkey said the two countries will ensure there is no "authority vacuum" once the U.S. troops leave.

A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson, said the executive order for withdrawal has been signed, but provided no further details.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said a U.S. military delegation is expected in Turkey this week.

Turkey says it and its Syrian Arab allies can replace the U.S. in preventing a resurgence of Islamic State.

Kalin said there will be no "step back, weakness, halting or a slowing down" of the fight against Islamic State. Turkey has made clear it will not tolerate a contiguous Kurdish-held enclave along its border with Syria.

Hammoud said the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces had fighters and weapons deploying on the front line with Manbij, and are preparing to take it first, he said.

Manbij was at the center of an agreement the U.S. and Turkey reached in June under which Kurdish forces were to withdraw. In recent weeks Turkey said the U.S. was dragging its feet in implementing the deal and vowed to launch a new offensive against the Kurds.

Those threats and a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week appear to have triggered Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. forces based in Syria.

Kurdish forces in Manbij "have taken measures to fend off any attack," said the spokesman for the Kurdish-led Manbij Military Council, Sharfan Darwish.

Trump has claimed to have defeated Islamic State, but the Kurdish fighters are still battling the extremists in the remote town of Hajin near the Iraqi border. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting displaced nearly 1,000 civilians on Sunday alone.

Ahmed, the senior Syrian Kurdish official, had just returned from a trip to France in which she called on Paris to play a larger role in Syria following the U.S. withdrawal.

"I urge Trump to go back on his decision inciting Erdogan against the Syrian people in general and the Kurdish people in specific," she said.

In the fight against Islamic State, hundreds of Kurdish fighters were killed.

"I call on him [Trump] to return the favor," she said.

AP and Israel Hayom Staff


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