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Don’t abandon us, Kurds tell Europe

US will not protect you, Assad warns Syria’s Kurds

BAGHUZ: Vehicles belonging to the US-led coalition drive down a street in the frontline Syrian village of Baghuz. —AFP

PARIS: A top Kurdish official has called on Europe not to abandon Syrian Kurds once the battle against the Islamic State group is over and to help set up an international force to protect them from Turkey. European powers “have a political and moral responsibility” to the Kurds, Aldar Khalil said in a interview in Paris, warning that the Kurds would seek the protection of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad if failed by Europe and the US.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been leading the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria for the past four years, backed up by air strikes from a US-led coalition. With IS’s self-declared caliphate now in ruins, the Kurds fear being left at the mercy of Turkey after the US declares mission accomplished in the final battle currently underway for the jihadists’ last Syrian holdout. Turkey, which has been battling a Kurdish insurgency on its own soil since 1984, views the Kurdish fighters that dominate the SDF as terrorists and has threatened to invade areas under Kurdish control in northeast Syria.

Khalil, who played a key role in establishing Syria’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region in 2013, appealed to Europe for protection. “If they (Europe) don’t meet their commitments they are effectively abandoning us,” Khalil said late on Sunday, calling on France particularly to work at the United Nations for the creation of a buffer zone along the Turkish border. “France can table a proposal to the Security Council on our protection, suggesting an international force between us and the Turks-of which it would be part-or to protect our airspace,” he said.

‘Hasty decision’
The senior political representative said that it could be modeled on the UN peacekeeping force deployed along Lebanon’s border with Israel. But European powers have already rebuffed US proposals for an observer force that would stay on in northeast Syria, fearing they will have to bear the burden once the US pulls out. “They’re trying to manage the consequences of a hasty decision and making us carry the responsibility,” a French government source said last week.

US President Donald Trump caused shock among America’s Western and Kurdish allies in December by announcing plans to withdraw US troops from Syria even before the end of the fight against IS. The withdrawal would leave the Kurds, who control nearly 30 percent of Syria, including the cities of Qamishli, Hasaka and Raqqa, exposed to a long-threatened attack by Turkey. The Kurds fear a repeat of the Turkish offensive that drove Kurdish fighters and civilians out of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin last year. They have also warned the West that the foreign jihadists currently languishing in Kurdish jails could escape and urged their countries of origin to take them back.

Fly regime flag
Yesterday, EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss the issue, which has taken on greater urgency as the battle for IS’s last redoubt ramps up. The jihadists are trapped in less than half a square kilometer in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border. Khalil said that the Kurds would seek protection from Assad unless their Western allies stepped up-and he spelt out the terms of a possible deal. “We will be obliged to agree a deal with the (Syrian) regime so that it deploys its troops along the border and protects us,” Khalil explained. He said that the Kurds would insist on maintaining autonomy and demand that the border troops be from Kurdish areas. “They would come under the orders of the Syrian army, but be our units,” he said, adding that foreign fighters would be kept under Kurdish guard and not handed over to Assad’s forces.

In return, the Kurds would offer to give Assad, who is anxious to win restore sovereignty over the biggest area beyond government control, a cut of the Kurdish region’s oil revenues. “We can also agree to raise the regime’s flag,” Khalil added. But Western observers expect Assad, whose forces control about 60 percent of Syria, to take advantage of the Kurds’ vulnerability and drive a hard bargain. On Sunday, Assad warned them that the US would not protect them against Turkey. “No one will protect you except your state,” he said.

Assad warns Syria’s Kurds
Meanwhile, President Bashar Al-Assad warned Syria’s Kurds Sunday that their ally the United States would not protect them against any Turkish offensive as Washington looks to withdraw it troops. The US is set to pull out its soldiers from Syria after allied Kurdish-led forces capture the Islamic State group’s last holdout in the war-torn country. Any withdrawal risks leaving the Kurds exposed to a long threatened attack by neighboring Turkey, which views Kurdish fighters as “terrorists”. “We tell those groups who are betting on the Americans that the Americans will not protect you,” Assad said in a televised speech. “The Americans do not hold you in their heart… They will put you in their pocket so you can be a bargaining chip.” Apart from fighting IS, the Kurds have largely stayed out of Syria’s civil war, working towards semi-autonomy in the northeast of the country.

The looming prospect of a US withdrawal, announced in December, has sent them scrambling to rebuild ties with the Damascus regime, but talks so far have failed to reach a compromise. “If you don’t prepare yourselves to defend your country and resist, you will be nothing but a slave to the Ottomans,” Assad warned, using a historic term for Turks. “No one will protect you except your state. No one will defend you except the Syrian Arab army,” he said. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which has fought IS with backing from the US-led coalition since 2015, on Sunday met to discuss “the future of relations with the Syrian government”.
The SDF stressed the need for Damascus to recognize the “special status” of the Kurdish-Arab alliance, as well as the Kurdish semi-autonomous region. In a statement, it also expressed a “willingness to solve problems with Turkey through dialogue,” based on “mutual respect”. Nearly eight years into a war that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions, Assad’s forces control almost two thirds of the country. Just two areas remain beyond its control: the jihadist-held northwestern region of Idlib, and around a third of the country under control of Kurdish-led forces. “Every inch of Syria will be liberated,” Assad said in Sunday’s speech.- Agencies

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