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In Syria, Kurdish Fighters Prepare to Battle Turkey and Residents Fret


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In Syria, Kurdish Fighters Prepare to Battle Turkey and Residents Fret

https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-syria-kurdish-fighters-prepare-to-battle-turkey-and-residents-fret-11570559654?mod=hp_lead_pos5

TEL ARQAM, Syria—From a border outpost here that only a day earlier housed a small contingent of U.S. troops, Kurdish volunteer

Kawa Bozan

squinted through binoculars at the barrels of Turkish artillery aiming in his direction.

“We are sons of this country and we will defend it,” said the 36-year-old fighter. Behind him, several members of his local defense force sifted through the detritus the Americans left behind, including ready-to-eat meals and empty bottles of Muscle Milk.

U.S. troops who were stationed here and at another border outpost left on Monday after President Trump said the U.S. would step out of the way of a Turkish military operation to seize Syrian territory from America’s Kurdish-led allies.

‘These are our lands; they are not Turkish,’ said Ibtisam al-Subhi, who lives near the base in Tel Arqam that U.S. forces abandoned on Monday.


Photo:

The Wall Street Journal

The sudden departure has unsettled residents of this area along the Syrian border with Turkey. Many followed the U.S. troops out of town. Others remained, left to decide whether they, too, should vacate before Turkey invades.

“They could strike at any moment,” said Ibtisam al-Subhi, 30, who lives next to the outpost. She said she had decided to stay despite the danger. “We must stand up for ourselves,” she said. “These are our lands; they are not Turkish.”

Ms. Ibtisam also said she hadn’t slept since U.S. forces left. “While the Americans were here, we felt sure of ourselves,” she said. “Now, frankly, we are afraid.”

In the midst of Syria’s multisided conflicts, Kurdish militants and their political allies established a semiautonomous region across northern and eastern Syria, along a 370-mile border with Turkey, where Arabs and other communities also reside.

The U.S. sought to allay Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish militias in Syria and avert a Turkish incursion by introducing a security mechanism in August. As part of that mechanism, Kurdish forces demolished some of their border defenses. They are now rushing to rebuild.

The base in Tel Arqam, Syria, on the border with Turkey. The U.S. forces stationed here until Monday served as a buffer between Turkish and Kurdish forces.


Photo:

The Wall Street Journal

On Tuesday, workers dug tunnels along the border in preparation for the Turkish incursion. The terrain here is flat, making it difficult to defend against tanks and heavy weaponry. The only impediment is concrete blast walls topped with razor wire and daubed in places with the words “Down with Erdogan.”

Kurdish commanders said they had redeployed forces to the border, warning that the move could undermine efforts to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State.

Civilians here said they feared a repeat of what happened to the west, in Efrin, where Turkish forces invaded last year to drive out Kurdish forces. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch reported large-scale rights abuses there including looting and destruction of Kurdish property by Turkey-backed armed groups in the Free Syrian Army.

The U.S. partnership with the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia, was the backbone of a military coalition that destroyed Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate this year. That coalition is now hunting down Islamic State militants and holding several thousand captured fighters, along with women and children from their families.

Kurdish residents look toward Turkey in a rally in Ras al-Ayn on Tuesday.


Photo:

The Wall Street Journal

In the nearby town of Ras al-Ayn,

Mohammed Welat,

27, lamented being a pawn in geopolitical games. With Islamic State’s caliphate gone, Mr. Welat said the Kurdish force was now an expendable ally for the U.S., and the region was at the mercy of an unpredictable U.S. president.

“We don’t understand his intentions,” said Mr. Welat, who owns a small cosmetics store. “The Pentagon is with us but the U.S. president says a different thing every day.”

President Trump last year said he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria but subsequently reversed course, maintaining a presence of around 1,000 troops, until now. He tweeted on Tuesday that there had been 50 soldiers in the border area who have been relocated.

Mr. Welat and others said they hoped Mr. Trump would change his mind again and have been closely watching his statements for any sign of a shift. The market in Ras al-Ayn was busy on Tuesday, though shopkeepers said they could sense concern among their customers.

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Battleground

The U.S. is withdrawing troops from inside a 300-mile strip that Turkey wants as a ‘safe zone’ for displaced Syrians.

Areas of control in Syria, Oct. 7

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish army/opposition forces

Publicly known U.S. bases/positions

Locations U.S. is known to be leaving

Civilians in the border area said they would sooner accept a return of the Syrian regime than occupation by Turkey, which is battling a three-decade Kurdish insurgency at home and views Kurdish military groups on both sides of the border as terrorists.

Though Kurds in Syria long faced restrictions on speaking their language and practicing their culture, in 2011, at the beginning of the antigovernment uprising in Syria against President

Bashar al-Assad,

the regime granted Kurds some rights that they had long been denied.

Several dozen people in Ras al-Ayn gathered near the border on Tuesday to denounce what they said was a conspiracy against them. Banners read “No to occupation and demographic change.” A Turkish flag was visible across the border.

“[The Turks] want to destroy the security and stability,” said 45-year-old

Slava Rifai,

a politician who attended the rally.

The International Rescue Committee said at least 300,000 people could be displaced if Turkish President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

follows through on threats to invade Syria and create a safe zone. Mr. Erdogan aims to relocate to the area many of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians now in Turkey.

At Tel Arqam, a board inside a small building used as a gym by its previous American occupants—AJ, Doobie, Fish and Drew—was marked with tallies of bench presses, dead-lifts and squats. A menu written on a piece of cardboard listed crispy chicken for $5.

American and Kurdish officials said the U.S. troops that withdrew from the border outposts had moved to other bases in Syria.

American troops began withdrawing from the Syria-Turkey border, marking a major shift in U.S. policy as Washington pulls back from a key partner in the fight against Islamic State—the Kurds—ahead of a Turkish offensive against them. Photo: Delil Souleiman/Getty Images

Write to Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com

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