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As U.S. departs Syria, Kurds join Assad regime to fight a NATO ally

In the days since the announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, the country’s map is being redrawn. Both Turkey and the Russia-backed Syrian regime made territorial advances, and U.S.-partner Syrian Democratic Forces turned to Damascus for support. As a result, an estimated 130,000 civilians have fled their homes, and imprisoned ISIS fighters have escaped. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The battlefield in northern Syria has grown wider and increasingly complicated and more dangerous.

    The Kurds, once aligned with the U.S., are now fighting with Syrian government troops against invading Turkish forces.

    As foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports, President Trump's withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region is leading to more change than the area has seen in years. And a warning: Some viewers may find some of the images in this piece disturbing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On state TV, the Syrian flag flies over an important northern Syrian city, after Syrian troops overnight recaptured this territory for the first time in more than five years.

    Meanwhile, in another important Syrian town, Turkish troops and Turkish-backed rebels advanced. Both cities had been held by U.S.-backed Kurdish partners. But in just a few days, the map of northern Syria is being redrawn.

    Just last week, the U.S.-backed majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, in yellow, controlled a large area along the Syrian-Turkish border. Now Turkey, in green, is moving south across the border, and the Syrian regime, in red, backed by Russia, is taking back territory.

    For Turkey, the goal is to remove Kurdish forces it considers terrorists and establish a buffer zone along the border. It's an operation Turkey long threatened, but avoided so long as U.S. troops remained in northern Syria, partnered with those Kurdish forces to defeat ISIS.

    But those U.S. troops are now withdrawing, giving Turkey a window to launch an offensive that Defense Secretary Mark Esper called inevitable.

  • Mark Esper:

    We didn't want to get involved in a conflict that dates back nearly 200 years between the Turks and the Kurds and get involved in another — yet another war in the Middle East.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. was already in the middle of the war, and, by leaving, the carnage came quickly.

    This weekend, videos posted on social media showed Turkish-backed militias killing Kurdish prisoners on the streets. And residents injured by the Turkish assault ended up in the back of pickup trucks.

    Washington asserts Turkey will not go unchecked. In a statement this afternoon, President Trump increased tariffs on Turkey, called Turkey's actions setting conditions for possible war crimes, and threatened to swiftly destroy Turkey's economy if Turkey's operation continued.

    But just hours before that announcement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doubled down.

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    Regardless of the threats and pressures, we are determined to continue the operation until the end. I am stating clearly, we will absolutely finish the job we started.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For Turkey's Kurdish targets, they felt they had no choice but to embrace the Syrian regime and invite Syrian troops to provide the protection once promised by the U.S.

  • Man (through translator):

    We came here to face the Turkish attack and to ensure the safety of families from the random Turkish shelling.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. military fears that shelling could allow ISIS to resurge. Over the weekend ISIS-affiliated prisoners escaped.

    The alarm is being sounded loudest by countries hit hardest by Islamic State terrorism.

    German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas spoke today in Europe.

  • Heiko Maas (through translator):

    We are also fearing, and we are seeing it already, that this is leading to a strengthening of ISIS, which we absolutely must prevent.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Caught in the crossfire are Syrian civilians. The U.N. says 130,000 have fled their homes in what local Kurdish authorities call a humanitarian disaster.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I have four children, two girls and two boys. Where should I go? I'm so tired. I left the house a week ago. Where should I go now?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And it's not clear where the future of Northeast Syria goes now either.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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