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What The U.S. Withdrawal From Syria Looks Like From The Ground


President Trump is defending his decision to withdraw most troops from Syria, leaving behind the Kurds who fought alongside the U.S. against ISIS.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We never agreed to, you know, protect the Kurds. We fought with them for 3 1/2 to four years. We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives.

CHANG: Kurds in Syria and Iraq see it differently. They say the U.S. betrayed them. Some of them even threw things today at U.S. military vehicles pulling out of Syria. NPR's Jane Arraf has more from Iraq.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: There's a lot of traffic on this main highway in the Kurdish region of Iraq, a constant stream of trucks, taxis and buses, even tractors. But people come out of their homes and shops to watch these vehicles go past.

We're about a hundred miles from the Syrian border, and there's an American convoy rolling past - armored vehicles with gunners in some of the turrets under camouflage netting, the American flags flying high as they pull out of Syria.

Seven years ago, Syrian Kurds fought the Syrian regime to form a Kurdish-led, secular, autonomous region known as Rojava. Then they fought alongside U.S. forces against ISIS, losing more than 10,000 men and women. Two weeks ago, President Trump decided to withdraw American troops, and Turkish forces moved in to fight the Kurds.

In Iraq, U.S. military protection helped Iraqi Kurds build and protect their own semi-autonomous region. These Kurds lost more than 1,800 fighters in their U.S.-backed battle against ISIS. American forces were beloved here, but not today.

TALAT YOUNIS: (Through interpreter) Traitors - they are traitors. Weren't we allies of the Americans? They sold out the Syrian Kurds, and they come here and will sell us out, too.

ARRAF: Let's Talat Younis, a shopkeeper in the town of Chira after the convoy drove by. He's been watching on his phone a video of U.S. forces being pelted with stones and trash as they drive through the Kurdish-Syrian city of Qamishli. Rats escaping, one of the men in the video shouts after them.

On the road in Iraq, two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters trying to hitch a ride home before it starts to rain watch the Americans go by. Jassim Mohammad is 45.

JASSIM MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) We didn't expect America to turn its back on the Kurds in Syria who fought ISIS with them.

ARRAF: On another highway being used for the U.S. pullout, busloads of refugees fleeing northeastern Syria are traveling down the same road. Their destination is the Bardarash refugee camp 45 miles west of Erbil, where the U.N. and aid agencies are scrambling to accommodate up to 1,000 refugees a day.

Ayman Gharaibeh, Iraq director for the U.N.'s refugee agency, says it's difficult preparing for this because almost nothing since the Turkish incursion has been clear.

AYMAN GHARAIBEH: Well, I would love to tell - I love anybody to explain to me what the terms of the cease-fire is and how it's monitored and who can observe how it's violated. I mean, you know, we're just dealing with the consequences.


ARRAF: Outside a registration office, a woman comes in with four small children gathered around her. She's come from a town across northeast Syria, Ras al-Ayn, that has been a key battleground between Turkish and Syrian Kurdish forces.

GHAZAL: (Through interpreter) All of our houses were destroyed. Three of my cousins died there. I can't go back.

ARRAF: Her youngest, who's 4, isn't wearing a shirt. Ghazal, who doesn't give her last name, has come to ask for clothes.

GHAZAL: (Through interpreter) We didn't bring anything with us. We were thinking we don't need anything in the world except to save our children.

ARRAF: This is the third time in the eight-year conflict that Ghazal has become a refugee in Iraq. Each time, she's gone back when it's gotten safer. This time, she doesn't think it will.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, at the Bardarash refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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