As U.S. Troops Prepare To Withdraw From Syria, Kurds Seek New Ally
NOEL KING, HOST:
The United States military and Kurdish militias were allies for five years fighting against ISIS. Now that has changed. President Trump unexpectedly pulled U.S. troops from near the Syria-Turkey border, and the Kurds were left to fend for themselves.
For days now, Turkey has pounded them with air and ground assaults, and now U.S. forces are getting ready to evacuate completely. They are in danger because of the Turkish attacks. Here's Defense Secretary Mark Esper on "Face The Nation" on CBS yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")
MARK ESPER: We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies, and it's a very untenable situation. So I spoke with the president last night, and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.
KING: Now, that other advancing army that Mark Esper mentioned is the Kurds' new ally. These are Syrian government forces. Kurds say if the U.S. is leaving, they're going to have to rely on Syrian troops to help them fight Turkey.
Two of our correspondents are on the ground in the region. NPR's Peter Kenyon is on the Turkish side of the border, and NPR's Daniel Estrin is in northeastern Syria. Good morning to you both.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.
KING: Hi, good morning. Daniel, let me start with you. What is the latest on U.S. troop movements where - near where you are?
ESTRIN: A U.S. official is telling us that troops are now consolidating smaller outposts. They're moving into larger ones, and they are planning to head out altogether within a week. But there's also urgency among international aid organizations here. We've heard of at least two of them that are burning their documents. And many international reporters are also rushing out, and they're concerned about the regime coming to this area.
KING: Peter Kenyon, I want to turn to you on the Turkish side of the border. And I want to ask, what are you hearing from civilians there?
KENYON: Well, Turkey says 18 civilians have been killed so far by fire coming across from Syria. And beyond that, the conflict has also displaced many people on this side of the border in Turkey. I've traveled through towns that are virtually abandoned, everything shuttered and locked.
Most of the firepower, obviously, we have to keep saying, is going the other way into Syria. But people living near the border on the Turkish side, they've also had their lives disrupted. They're fleeing their homes, moving away from the border. And they're really hoping this fighting stops soon.
KING: As we mentioned, the Kurds, of course, teaming up now with the Syrian government to protect them. From Turkey's point of view, what is the significance of that?
KENYON: Well, it changes the terms of any fight that might be developing should there be clashes between the Turkish military and Kurdish fighters. I mean, the Kurds have used allies before. They partnered with U.S. forces against ISIS, highly praised for their prowess in getting territory back from ISIS.
Now with Turkish troops crossing the border moving into Syria, Kurdish militants have called on the Assad regime in Damascus to send forces north. It will be interesting to see how the change of alignment plays out, how much, if any at all, it helps the Kurdish militants as Turkey advances.
KING: It is significant that the Kurds have decided to ally with the Syrian government, yeah?
ESTRIN: It's a major, major development. I mean, what happened is that the Kurds found themselves in a tough situation. The Turks were coming in on them, and they realized that they needed to make a deal with the Syrian regime to protect themselves. And that's exactly what's happening.
The Syrian regime says it's going to be taking control of the entire region, the entire border with Turkey. And many Kurds that we're speaking with here say that they actually feel relieved. They'd rather have the Syrian regime here than their enemy, the Turks.
KING: Daniel, when we learned last week that President Trump pulled some U.S. forces, his critics immediately said, you know, this is going to leave an opening for ISIS to come back. And now we're hearing news reports about ISIS detainees escaping from prisons that were run by the Kurds. What is the latest on ISIS and their movements, and what's going on with these prisoners?
ESTRIN: Well, I should make it clear that ISIS militants have not escaped prison. What happened yesterday was that there was an escape of hundreds of women and children who are related to ISIS militants. What happened was when fighting erupted in the area, there were reports that U.S. troops started moving out of a base nearby. There was a lot of chaos. And Kurdish guards of that detention camp feared for their lives.
We spoke to the camp director, and he said that the guards simply left. And that's when several hundred detainees in this detention camp escaped, women and children. And this is this kind of scenario that people have been fearing about on a bigger scale, ISIS detention camps and prisons being left unguarded when their Kurdish guards go off to fight in this conflict and fears that ISIS could regroup.
KING: Daniel, of course, Peter mentioned that, you know, most of the fire, most of the assault, ground and air, is coming into Syria from Turkey. And I wonder what this means for the civilians that you're talking to. How are they reacting? Are they hunkering down? Are they fleeing?
ESTRIN: Well, this is the main question now people are asking, should I stay or should I go? Where we are, a lot of the Kurds are relieved that there may be this new deal between the Syrian regime and Kurdish leaders for the Syrian regime to come in that might be an end to the fighting. They say it's much better than having Turkey, their sworn enemy, come here.
A lot of people we've been speaking to who are nervous are young men. We spoke to a barber, a 19-year-old barber named Suleiman (ph) from his barbershop. And he said I'm a part of this huge generation of young men who have been in Kurdish-run territory. We managed to dodge the Syrian military draft. And he said that they're afraid that, you know, they could even get thrown in jail if the regime comes to town. As the Syrian regime is coming back to this area, it is the end of any kind of dream of having a Kurdish - any kind of Kurdish autonomy here.
KING: Peter, for its part, the Trump administration has condemned this assault by Turkey, has threatened sanctions against Turkey. I guess, simply put, does Turkey care?
KENYON: Well, it doesn't appear to have much effect on Turkey's thinking. Now, if the sanctions get heavy and really squeeze the economy, Ankara's thinking could change over time. But at the moment, Turkish officials are saying, no, it'll have no effect on us.
KING: And, Peter, if this does keep going, if there's a full-on conflict between Syria and Turkey, who are the winners and who are the losers?
KENYON: Well, Russia and Iran are already Syria's most important allies. If it comes to clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces, will Russia come to Syria's defense? That would increase strains on Turkey-Russia ties. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday we've got no problem with Russia. Any problems, we work out within 24 hours.
But with the U.S. out of the picture, the field appears to be clear for Russia and Iran to push their agendas in Syria, which, in the near-term, certainly include keeping Bashar al-Assad's regime in power.
KING: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Turkey near the Syrian border. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Syria near the Turkish border. Thank you guys both so much.
KENYON: Thanks, Noel.
ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.