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Without U.S. Troops, Kurds May Make A Deal With Syria To Prevent A Turkish Attack

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since President Trump decided to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, tensions have been high on the border with Turkey. Now we are seeing reports that both the Syrian military and neighboring Turkey are descending on the city of Manbij. It's a city that Kurds have controlled with support from U.S. troops. And it seems that fearing the loss of U.S. support, the Kurds there are seeking help from the Assad regime. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in northeastern Syria and joins us now. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: This is such a complicated dynamic - who is aligned with whom and who is against whom. Help us sort through the series of moves today.

SHERLOCK: Well, it started in a pretty dramatic way with a statement from the Syrian army that said that it had entered Manbij, this town, and raised the Syrian government flag over the city. Here's a clip from the videoed statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: So the Syrian army commander's speech here is full of rhetoric. He's saying the army is going to protect every inch of its sovereign nation and that they're answering a call by the people of Manbij to go into the town. But the reality seems somewhat different. Residents we spoke to in the town today said there was no sign of the Syrian military anywhere. What we do know is that there are negotiations going on with the Kurds who control this area and that the Kurdish groups that control this area have said that they would be willing for the Syrian regime to move into the area and create a buffer against Turkey should Turkey try to enter. Now Turkey sees these Kurdish authorities as being aligned with militants in Turkey that it calls terrorists.

SHAPIRO: So Turkey sees the Kurds as terrorists. The U.S. aligns with the Kurds. Syria says it's coming to help protect the Kurds. There are still about 2,200 U.S. troops in Syria. Has the American military commented on what's happening here?

SHERLOCK: Well, exactly. So the American military has put out a statement saying that Syrian forces were not in Manbij and that the situation in Manbij hasn't changed at the moment. The U.S. still has troops in Manbij. The situation there were so tense for so long that they actually started doing these joint patrols with Turkey to try to kind of defuse the situation. And U.S. officials we've spoken to say they don't have any plans to withdraw those troops immediately.

SHAPIRO: Is all of this making a conflict in the city of Manbij more or less likely?

SHERLOCK: You know, it's almost too early to say. On the one hand, Turkey has moved these troops up right to Manbij border. But on the other hand, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled that he might be able to cool off the attack against this area if the Kurds withdraw, and the Syrian regime moves in. He said that if the terror organizations leave, by which he means the Kurds, then there's no work left for us anyway. The situation is still very much in flux. Tomorrow Russia is going to be hosting top Turkish officials, and they're going to discuss the situation in Syria and future developments there if the U.S. does withdraw its troops. So at the moment, it's very difficult to say how this will go. If the Syrian army moves into Manbij, it would be a loss for the Kurds in some way. But on the other hand, this is not the heartland of their territory. It's a town on the fringes of their areas that they control. And they would be able to, you know, use the Syrians as a buffer against Turkey to protect them against Turkish advances.

SHAPIRO: Ruth, we've been hearing your coverage from Syria all week. How are people you're talking to there feeling about the U.S. decision to pull troops out and the kind of cascade of dominoes that we've seen in the days since then?

SHERLOCK: Most of the people in these Kurdish-held areas that we've been traveling through see this as a huge betrayal. A lot of blood was lost in the fight against ISIS here. And partly on behalf of the Americans, the Kurds were the ground force against ISIS. And people we've spoken to have lost many relatives in that fight. So for the U.S. to suddenly withdraw, they feel it leaves them exposed to these new threats. And they feel in many ways abandoned.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ruth Sherlock speaking with us from northeastern Syria. Thanks, Ruth.

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

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