SDF calls US decision to withdraw forces from northern Syria 'one hell of a mistake,' as residents voice fears of a looming Turkish assault
Fears of a Turkish assault have grown among residents of northern Syria after the announced withdrawal of US forces from the region.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mainly Kurdish-led armed group backed by the US, have said they will keep fighting Islamic State (IS) in eastern Syria despite the announced US withdrawal, but warned that this could be halted if Turkey attacks them.
"The US made one hell of a mistake. IS wasn't completely demolished, they still exist and are able to attack and flourish in many areas," Mustafa Hamind, head of SDF media operations in northern Syria, told Middle East Eye.
"This morning IS gangs made a counterattack against the Hajin area, an area where they'll be faced by us, and we will fight them back even if we are alone."
It's unbelievable why it's going this way with Trump administration, leaving Turkey and Russia to prevail in Syria, leaving their allies eaten alive?
- Nour Osou, Tal Abyad resident
But the loss of the US presence has renewed worries that Turkey, which regards the SDF's main component, the People's Protection Units (YPG), as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), may now be preparing to launch an operation to drive the group out of the city of Manbij or further.
"The latest news has been literally shocking. We didn't only have the threats of being attacked by the Turks but, to top it all, the US decided to leave with no one to replace [them]," said Nour Osou, a 38-year-old resident of Tal Abyad, a town the YPG captured from IS in 2015.
"It's obvious to me and everyone here, my neighbours and friends, that this is part of a big plot that was being cooked," she told MEE.
"It's unbelievable why it's going this way with the Trump administration - leaving Turkey and Russia to prevail in Syria, leaving their allies eaten alive?"
US Defence Secretary James Mattis, who had opposed President Donald Trump's decision on Syria, abruptly announced on Thursday he was resigning after meeting with the president.
In a candid letter to Trump, the retired Marine general emphasised the importance of "showing respect" to allies.
Mayar Heso, a 28-year-old merchant in Manbij, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to "clear" of "terrorists," said he was worried about what he and his family would do in the event of an attack by Turkey.
"In the past few weeks we were hearing rumours of [an attack], we didn't believe it will happen. However, after the US withdrawal from Syria, I became really afraid and worried about the coming days," he told MEE.
"The US is making a tremendous mistake - it maybe benefits the US to cut the funds from inside Syria, but that'll destroy what they have been working at since they've entered Syria."
"I've got my family living here in Manbij, and I have no idea about our lives here, not sure where to go or what to do, everyone is on his own here and quite sceptical and worried about what is to come."
Turkey's Hurriyet daily newspaper has reported that Trump's surprise announcement came as a result of a conversation with Erdogan last Friday.
Erdogan threatened to launch an operation against YPG forces that are fighting against IS with US military assistance, the newspaper said.
According to Hurriyet, Trump asked Erdogan if Turkey would "clean up the remaining Daesh [IS] elements if we withdrew from Syria".
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Erdogan reportedly told Trump that Turkey had cleared IS during its first military operation in northern Syria between 2016 and 2017 and could do so again. Trump replied by telling him to go ahead and do it.
While still on the phone, the US president told his national security adviser, John Bolton, to "start the work" to prepare withdrawing troops from Syria, Hurriyet reported.
A similar account was reported by Fox News on Thursday. A senior US official told the American channel's national security correspondent that Trump decided to pull out of Syria after Erdogan warned US troops to "get out of the way".
The Turkish president said on Friday that Trump's decision following the phone call meant Turkey would "wait a little longer" before launching its operation.
"Of course this is not an open-ended waiting period," he warned, adding that Turkey would clear Syria of the YPG militia as well as IS fighters after the US decision to pull troops out.
Hamind warned that Turkey's threats would destabilise northern Syria.
"Their announcement of war will not help with prevailing peace and prosperity in the region," he said.
"There will be more bloodshed. We hope the Turks don't carry on with their plans."
Fate of IS prisoners
Mustafa Bali, another SDF spokesperson, also hinted to AFP that the US pull-out could make Syria's autonomous Kurdish administration less inclined to retain custody of detained IS fighters whom Western countries do not want to return home.
He did not suggest the Kurds would release detained fighters but argued that Turkey might target prisons in order to wreak chaos.
"Of course, if Turkey attacks, it will affect the fate of these prisoners," he said. "Turkey may target these prisons as it tries to release these terrorists."
Turkey's defence minister, Hulusi Akar, reportedly said on Thursday that Kurdish fighters east of the Euphrates in Syria "will be buried in their ditches when the time comes".
The Kurds have repeatedly complained they do not have the capacity to handle the burden of more than 3,000 IS detainees and family members, urging Western powers to repatriate their nationals for trial at home.
Western powers, including countries with significant contingents of captured foreign fighters, such as France, have been reluctant to take back the fighters.
A US officer speaks with a YPG fighter in northern Syria earlier this year (AFP)
Four US officials, who spoke to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, said the troop withdrawal is expected to mean an end to the US air campaign against IS.
The US-led air war has been vital to crushing the group there and in neighbouring Iraq, with more than 100,000 bombs and missiles fired at targets in the two countries since 2015.
However, one US official said a final decision on the air campaign had not been made and did not rule out some kind of support for partners and allies.
The US told the UN Security Council it was committed to the "permanent destruction" of IS in Syria and would keep pushing for the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces in the country.
Backed by the air strikes from the US-led coalition, SDF forces last week were reported to have seized Hajin, the largest town in the remaining pocket of territory still controlled by IS in eastern Syria.
Hundreds of IS fighters, however, have regrouped in Sousa and Al-Shaafa, the last two hubs in the ever-shrinking rump of the group's once sprawling "caliphate".
Additional reporting by AFP