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Allies In Syria Concerned Over ISIS Or Turkey Invasion After U.S. Troops Leave


And let's go now to the two countries affected by Trump's decision to pull out U.S. troops. First, to Syria - NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in northeastern Syria near the Turkish border, an area governed by Kurds. And it's right there alongside the Kurds that U.S. troops have been fighting ISIS. Good morning, Ruth.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the situation like there now?

SHERLOCK: Well, on the surface of things, you know, life looks, in many ways, normal. There's this large, Christian contingent here. And Christmas preparations are underway. We walked out onto bustling streets that are decorated with all these twinkling Christmas lights. And people are buying decorations and trees and presents. But in the middle of all this, there is one word on everybody's lips, and that is Trump. They are angry and worried about his decision to withdraw from Syria.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, this is, of course, important to get the perspective of people who are going to be affected by this. What are people telling you there?

SHERLOCK: Well, most of the people we've spoken to see this as a huge portrayal. And here, you can hear us speaking about this issue with Hatem Hassan. He's this 37-year-old man who owns a money exchange shop in a bustling street market. And as he was counting dollars, he said, all that Trump thinks of is money. And here is the rest of what he said.

HATEM HASSAN: (Through interpreter) If they will leave, they are - we will curse them as traitors. The Kurds helped them to destroy ISIS. No one can destroy ISIS. And we, the Kurds, we destroy them. And now they said, OK, we will just leave. No one will forgive them.

SHERLOCK: So he's saying if they leave, we'll curse them as traitors. He also tells us that seven members of his own family were killed on the frontlines, fighting in the anti-ISIS offensive. And he names them and tells us that most of them were young, about 20 years or slightly older.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A reminder, of course, that this civil war has been absolutely devastating there. Did everyone you meet, though, express this kind of anger? Is that the universal reaction there?

SHERLOCK: Not everybody - you know, some people here are happy to see the Americans leave. They saw this as an occupation of Syria. In one town, we entered this smoky cafe where there were men, mostly of retirement age, sitting at tables, playing cards and drinking coffee. And the owner, Maurice Saliba, he kind of shrugged when we asked him about the U.S. presence in Syria. You know, there is a big threat here that Turkey, who considers the Kurdish authorities that control this area terrorists, might attack. The Syrian government wants to take this area back. But he says he's seen it all before. This is a region that is in great turmoil. And he just thinks this is a place for Kurds, for Arabs, for Christians and Armenians. And he doesn't see a role for the Americans here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So besides ISIS, there is another problem in this region. Turkey views the Syrian Kurds as enemies because they're aligned with Kurdish militants in Turkey. And Turkey is threatening an invasion within weeks. Are the Kurds preparing for that?

SHERLOCK: They're very worried. And all the officials we've spoken to see this as their biggest threat. We spoke with Amjad Othman, who's the spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Council. That's the Kurdish authority that controls this area. He says this is such a huge concern that they may have to respond to the U.S. withdrawal by, actually, stopping to fight ISIS and redirect their troops from where Turkey might possibly attack. President Trump, of course, has said that ISIS is defeated. But actually, the fight is still going in one small part of Syria. And he said, we have lost thousands of men in this fight. It would be a tragedy to stop and see ISIS, perhaps, grow again. But it's our only choice. We have to defend our territories against Turkey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So essentially, what he's saying is, I'm going to stop fighting against ISIS. I have to go defend myself against Turkey, which, I guess, is a sign, really, of how complicated things are there. What do officials see as a possible solution? Is there a way for them to avert a Turkish offensive?

SHERLOCK: They are willing to talk to the Americans to lead a political solution. They are willing to cut a deal with the Syrian government, who also wants to control this area and its allies, Russia and Iran. At this stage, they are trying to talk to everybody and see what would be the best way to secure Kurdish interests in this region.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in northeastern Syria. Thank you so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.