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Kurds Align With Syria After U.S. Withdrawal


It's been a dramatic day in Syria. Kurdish troops in northern Syria have turned to a new ally after President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. forces from the area. Kurdish leaders invited the Syrian regime to retake the Syrian border with Turkey, and Syrian troops are on the move. An NPR team was in Syria to witness this abrupt change in the Syrian war. They're now back across the border in Iraq. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now.

And Daniel, as we said, you were in Syria this morning. What was the reaction there to this new alliance?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It feels like a historic day, Audie. We have seen a major shift in alliances just in the last 24 hours. We were in a town quite far away from the frontlines. We walked into a shop where men were glued to the TV, and at first, they were watching the Turkish military offensive.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in Arabic).

ESTRIN: They were watching images of stretchers, people bleeding in the street in a town that is just a few hours' drive away. And the shop owner spoke to my colleague Lama Al-Arian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in Arabic).

LAMA AL-ARIAN, BYLINE: We're watching this so we know when to escape. That's why they're watching the news.

ESTRIN: They were watching Turkish troops advancing closer and closer to their town. They said they were afraid for their lives because Turkey is their enemy. But then when the news broke that the Kurds had struck a deal with the Syrian regime to protect them, there were people in the streets who were waving posters of the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. They were very happy to have the regime come rescue them.

CORNISH: But is the return of the regime a good thing for the Kurds in Syria?

ESTRIN: In the short run, the Kurds are relieved. This seems to prevent the Turks from driving them out and killing them. That's what we heard from Kurds we spoke to today. And the Kurdish general in charge wrote an op-ed in Foreign Policy, and he says the choice was between compromise and genocide. In other ways, though, this does not look like it's going to bode well for the Kurds in the long run. It may not because they've lost a lot of leverage. They don't have the U.S. with them on the ground anymore to help mediate with Turkey and with Syria.

And also, there are a lot of questions about what this means for their autonomous region. For the last several years, the Kurds have run their own region. They call it Rojava. They have their own schools that teach Kurdish, symbols of their ethnicity, Kurdish on street signs. These are all things that the Syrian regime used to repress when they were ruling here, and now the Syrian regime is coming back. And one Kurd told us he's afraid that the regime might be repressive and vindictive once they're back.

CORNISH: So Daniel, what happens to the ISIS prisoners being kept in this area? Because Kurdish officials have been the ones guarding them.

ESTRIN: Right, and Kurdish officials are still guarding them, according to U.S. officials I've been speaking with. One official told me that Syrian Kurdish forces have relocated a few hundred of the ISIS prisoners further south, away from the ongoing fighting. Another official I spoke with told me that these Kurdish forces are absolutely committed to guarding these detainees. When the Syrian regime takes charge, that's a big question - whether they will still be allowed to guard them.

CORNISH: How quickly will the Syrian regime's troops move in, and what's going to happen to the people you met when the regime retakes the area?

ESTRIN: The regime troops seem to be moving in quite fast, and many of the Syrians we were speaking with this morning said, though, that they would not flee. They felt safe with Assad's forces coming in, although we did meet one young man who said he was considering fleeing to avoid getting drafted into the Syrian regime army.

We did meet some people leaving today. When we were boarding our shuttle bus to cross the border back into Iraq, we saw a 4-year-old boy kiss his grandfather goodbye through the window. His grandfather Issam didn't have residency papers in Iraq, and he was crying, not knowing when he'd see his grandson again.

ISSAM: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He's saying, "Separation, separation - separation has killed the people. It's destroyed a generation. War is without a purpose. Nobody gains from them - only warlords. People are becoming displaced. Their children are getting killed in war."

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: And his grandson's saying, "Grandpa, why aren't you coming with us? I'm going to miss you so much." And his grandfather says, I'll meet you later. But then he told me he doesn't know if he will or when he will.

CORNISH: That's Daniel Estrin. He covers the Middle East for NPR. Thanks for your reporting.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.