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US pullout leaves Syria Kurds exposed

Kurdish demonstrators gather to protest near the border wall separating Turkey from Syria in the western Syrian countryside of Ras al-Ain
Kurdish demonstrators gather to protest near the border wall separating Turkey from Syria in the western Syrian countryside of Ras al-Ain AFP
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Beirut (AFP)

The US decision to pull troops out of eastern Syria will leave the Kurds exposed to Turkish military threats and forced to cooperate with Damascus, analysts said Thursday.

In a shock announcement, US President Donald Trump ordered a full troop pullout of Syria, where he claimed the Islamic State group had been defeated.

His statement on Wednesday was met with dismay by some of his own allies at home and abroad but the hardest-hit were Syria's Kurds who have been spearheading the fight against IS.

Days earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was planning a new military offensive against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) east of the Euphrates River in Syria.

Turkey views the YPG as a "terrorist offshoot" of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

"If the withdrawal decision is really implemented, this will open way for Turkey to start its operations against the Kurds and a bloody war will begin," said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst.

The SDF, in which the YPG is the key element, has already warned that a Turkish offensive would led to a freeze of anti-IS operations and could also have an impact on the fate of the many Western jihadists it has begrudgingly kept in its own prisons.

- Talks with Damascus -

With tension rising on the border between Turkey and Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, the US had set up observation posts in a bid to rein in its NATO ally.

The announcement by the White House coincided with news that Washington had approved the $3.5-billion sale of Patriot missiles and associated equipment to Turkey.

"Turkish escalation in Syria seems to be bearing fruit," said Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"Clearly this decision is a blow to Kurdish aspirations and hopes in north Syria, but the Kurds have been preparing for just such a day," he said.

The Kurds have long tried to secure self-rule in the area and have taken a frontline role in the West's fight against IS way beyond their heartland's boundaries in a bid to win durable support.

The political leadership of the self-declared Rojava region the Kurds unilaterally proclaimed two years ago has already begun talks with Damascus.

The Kurds have military control over territory covering almost 30 percent of Syria, including some of its most oil-rich regions.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned the Kurds to give up on its self-rule plans or face military action.

- 'Twitching in the wind' -

Trump's announcement contradicts previous statements that US forces would remain in Syria as long as Iran maintained a military presence there.

"The logic of staying in Syria is very weak. The US is surrounded by enemies that are determined to force it out of Syria and has not one neighbouring government as an ally," Landis pointed out.

He argued that Washington owed Syria's Kurds some form of assistance and said any withdrawal should come with guarantees, such as "more money, some autonomy and control over local oil and protection from Turkish forces".

In the town of Ras al-Ain, near Syria's border with Turkey, demonstrators said Thursday that the US was abandoning them.

"The whole world is taking the view that the Kurdish cause can be bought and sold," said Khaled Usso, a 45-year-old who attended a protest against Turkish military threats and Trump's decision.

"This is a major betrayal of the people of Rojava," he said.

Joost Hiltermann, Middle East programme director at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said a hasty US withdrawal would leave the Kurds more exposed than ever.

"The decision, if carried out precipitously, would leave the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces twitching in the wind," he said.

"Both Turkey and Syria want to eliminate the YPG as a military actor," Hiltermann warned.

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