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US forces start Syria border pullback, alarming Kurds

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Qamishli (Syria) (AFP)

US forces in Syria started pulling back Monday from Turkish border areas, opening the way for Ankara's threatened military invasion and heightening fears of a jihadist resurgence.

The withdrawal from key positions along Syria's northern border came after the White House said it would step aside to allow for a Turkish operation President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said could come at any moment.

The move marks a major shift in US policy, and effectively abandons the Kurds, who were Washington's main ally in the years-old battle against the so-called Islamic State group.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish militia that controls much of northeastern Syria, said early on Monday in a statement that "US forces withdrew from the border areas with Turkey".

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor confirmed that US forces had pulled back from key positions in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad.

A Kurdish official also told AFP that US forces had started withdrawing from the border, making way for a Turkish invasion, the scope of which remains to be seen.

Turkey has sent reinforcements to the border in recent weeks, and Erdogan said Monday in televised remarks the long-threatened offensive could "come any night without warning".

His comments came after Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter that Turkey was "determined to ensure our country's existence and security by clearing terrorists from this region."

He was referring to the SDF, which has ties to Kurdish militants inside Turkey and which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation.

- 'At all costs' -

"The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial 'Caliphate,' will no longer be in the immediate area," the White House said.

Ankara says it wants to urgently establish a "safe zone" on the other side of the border in which to send back some of the 3.6 million refugees who fled the eight-year war in Syria and live on Turkish soil.

But the Kurds argue that Turkey's goal is to weaken the Kurdish presence in the region by modifying the demographics of the area with the return of mostly Sunni Arab refugees.

The SDF, which has repeatedly complained that US President Donald Trump's declared intention to pull out of Syria was a historic betrayal, warned of the risks that a Turkish invasion would carry for the region.

The organisation, which spearheaded -- with backing from the US-led coalition -- several of the most significant battles against IS over the past five years, vowed to resist any Turkish attack.

"As the Syrian Democratic Forces, we are determined to defend our land at all costs," it said in a statement posted on social media.

It said in a statement Monday that a Turkish offensive would reverse the military gains achieved against IS at great human cost and allow for the jihadist group's surviving leaders to come out of hiding.

- Threat to the world -

The Kurdish-dominated group said that the US pullback threatened to create a security vacuum that would "reverse the successful effort to defeat ISIS".

It highlighted that 11,000 Kurdish fighters had been killed in five years of war to eliminate a "caliphate" that once covered an area the size of Great Britain in Syria and Iraq.

The SDF also warned that the US withdrawal and imminent Turkish attack risked leading to the "return of leaders of ISIS who are hidden in the desert" and other areas.

The Kurds have consistently warned that they would be unable to keep captured IS fighters behind bars if they had to dedicate the bulk of their forces to fighting back a Turkish offensive.

The SDF said in its statement that IS cells would break out detained jihadists from Kurdish prisons and take over camps where their relatives are held, "which is a threat to local and international security."

While a Kurdish-led operation earlier this year saw the death of IS's territorial caliphate, the organisation isn't dead and sleeper cells have been active in several parts of Syria and Iraq.

The US itself has warned that, short of sustained international military pressure on the remnants of the jihadist group, IS would soon have the ability to regroup and reclaim some territorial control in the region.

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