Uncertainty Over Future U.S. Role And Possible Turkish Offensive Raises Civilian Anxiety In Northern Syria
Local population, already devastated by eight years of war, wary of proposed creation of “safe zone” along the border
The proposed “security zone” in northern Syria is unnerving the local population which in the past opposed both the Assad government and jihadist groups including Islamic State. Having mostly driven ISIS away by mid-2015, residents now fear the might of the Turkish army, the second-largest force in NATO after the United States.
“The people here are concerned,” said Jiwan Mohammed, a shop owner in Kobane, the Syrian border town that ISIS four years ago surrendered to Kurdish forces. “Since [U.S. President Donald] Trump tweeted that he was going to withdraw American troops from the area we fear that the jihadist Syrian groups, their Turkish allies and the Syrian regime will launch attacks.”
Mohammed told The Media Line that civilians are more vulnerable than ever after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed with his American counterpart to set up a 20-mile wide “safe zone” along the frontier that would include Kobane.
“Many are trying to sell their properties and raise the money to help themselves when they flee the city,” Mohammed said.
Turkey is doubling down on a demand that President Trump deliver on his pledge to evacuate some 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria—a worrisome prospective for the Kurdish community and Arab tribal leaders that have enjoyed relative peace and autonomy under the protection of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
The SDF has been America’s most effective partner on the ground in the drive against ISIS.
“Every night we go to sleep scared and confused,” Berxwedan, a Kobane shopkeeper, told The Media Line. “We don’t know what new foolish tweet we’ll wake up to in the morning that could change the fate of this whole area and the destiny of our families.”
Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 68 to 23 in favor of an amendment to a broader Middle East legislative bill rebuking President Trump for the “precipitous withdrawal” of American forces from Syria and Afghanistan. The move came just weeks after the U.S. leader ordered the pull-out based on the declaration that ISIS has been defeated.
Shortly thereafter, two U.S. soldiers, a defense department official and an army contractor were killed in a suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State in Manbij, an Arab-majority town only several kilometers south of the proposed buffer zone. At least 16 people were killed in the attack, the deadliest to target American troops during their four years in Syria.
Turkey’s insistence on the removal of Kurdish fighters from Manbij is driving local Arabs previously opposed to the Assad regime to seek support from Damascus.
“The most important thing is the safety of the area now,” Abu Muhammad, a secondary school teacher in Manbij, told The Media Line. “It would be good for the city to be managed together by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime.
“At least the Syrian regime will be able to offer us official documents such as IDs, passports and [vocational] qualifications or [educational] degrees,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey that Ankara expects the “Manbij roadmap” to be actualized in full, which includes Washington breaking ties with the Syrian Kurds.
The agreement between Turkey and the United States calls for a complete evacuation from Manbij of Kurdish YPG units that form the bulk of the SDF and which Turkey views as an offshoot of the banned PKK.
Nevertheless, the SDF over the weekend continued operations against ISIS in the Deir el Zour governorate, where Kurdish fighters have been accused of blocking humanitarian aid to the last remnants of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate.” The SDF has cornered ISIS into a 2-mile square patch of territory near Hajin along the Euphrates River, in the process forcing some 30,000 residents to flee towards a refugee camp at Al-Hold straddling the Iraqi border.
“Humanitarian actors have collectively requested forces in control of the area to designate a transit site end route for Al-Hold where life-saving assistance can be provided,” United Nations representative Andrej Mahecic wrote in a statement Friday.
SDF spokesman Redur Khalil claimed his group never received such a request and insisted that Kurdish forces and their local civilian councils “have long expressed our position that we need assistance, especially UN aid.”
The SDF maintains that it is the lone armed force in northern Syria working to restore order.
To this end, the group last week announced the beginning of repairs to the main power station in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold reconquered in October 2017.
“The people feel betrayed by Trump who is doing one thing and saying another,” Mohamed Alahmad, a construction worker in Raqqa, told the Media Line.
“We are trying everything to get heat, we start fires with scrap wood and burn plastic. It might help us stay warm but it can also cause cancer,” he said.
“SDF fighters have looted homes and stolen money and gold [under] the pretext of searching for ISIS fighters. The security situation is still miserable.”
(Filip Warwick contributed to this report)