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After the Syrian revolution began in 2011, the Kurdish people formed their own semi-autonomous area in Syria called Rojava. Their alliance with the U.S. has kept Syrian and Turkish forces out of the region and bolstered territorial gains. But questions over Rojava's future persist after President Trump announced he will withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.
The conventional ground war with ISIS is over in Syria. But, it's the beginning of a new one for the country's embattled Kurdish population. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson has our story from northeastern Syria.
Syria's Kurdish families gather in fields, where they sing and dance, ringing in the New Year, known here as Nowruz. Also called the Persian New Year, it embraces practices from the ancient religion Zoroastrianism like lighting fires through the countryside. The fire represents cleansing. A fresh start. This year really is a fresh start for the Kurdish people. There is much to celebrate. Their militias are about to announce victory over ISIS. After so much loss and suffering, people here are honoring both their dead and those who've survived the fight.
This Nowruz has more joy because of our martyrs and fighters on the front line. This Nowruz we are very happy especially the female fighters and comrades.
Many, like Shilan Hassake, a Kurdish fighter who fought ISIS, can now look to a future without the Islamic State controlling land nearby.
My thoughts are to develop this area and to avenge the blood of the martyrs.
The next day, ISIS's defeat was announced. The Islamic State made its last stand here, in a tiny village called Baghouz, near the Syrian-Iraqi border, in March. It left a trail of destruction as they slowly retreated under intense fire. In the end, tens of thousands of its fighters, wives, and children surrendered. The rest fought to the death. The group lives on as an insurgency, but no longer controls any territory. It was the last gasp following five years of brutal rule by ISIS over an area once the size of Great Britain, stretching across Syria and Iraq. And the result of an historic military partnership between the U.S. and the local Kurdish militia in North East Syria. In 2015 they formed a new force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. It combined Kurdish fighters with local Arabs. The SDF battled ISIS on the ground, guided by American Special Forces, while US fighter jets and their coalition partners pounded ISIS targets with air strikes. Arian Qamishli is a Kurd who has been commanding all female SDF fighters in this area throughout the war against ISIS. To her, this was a deeply personal mission.
ISIS attacked us, they took the Yazidi women and kept them as sex slaves. They wanted to destroy the Yazidi religion. They wanted to rebuild their Caliphate here. Not only women, everyone in this area, held weapons and stood against this barbarian enemy. We have nothing other than this land, and as women if they attack us we will take up weapons and fight. Anyone would resist.
As the battlefield fighting ends here, the geopolitics becomes more dangerous. In many ways the defeat of ISIS as a group that can control its own territory in Syria is really just the ending of one phase of this war, and the beginning of a very new, complex, and dangerous time. The Kurds created their own semi-autonomous area of Syria, called Rojava, back when the Syrian revolution began, pushing back government forces from their areas. Long marginalized and discriminated against by the government in Damascus, they finally achieved their goal of limited self-rule. Their alliance with US troops gave the Kurds the strength to solidify their territorial gains. With American boots on the ground, the Assad regime was not going to march in. Then suddenly last December, President Trump announced on Twitter, before the battle against ISIS was over, that all 2000 US troops would be leaving Syria. The news shocked US military officials, Kurdish commanders and the diplomatic community. The US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and American commander in charge of the alliance with the Kurds, Bret McGurk, both resigned.
To be honest this decision surprised us, especially when the fighting against the terrorists was not finished.
Amjad Othman is the spokesperson of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political umbrella of the SDF.
It was not only the Kurds who were shocked by this decision. The Christians were surprised too, and also other Arabs in the area. They know the regime will take revenge on them. So all the people in this area were fearful. It was not only the Kurds who were nervous.
Since his tweet, President Trump has backtracked, saying 400 U.S. troops will stay in Syria, half of them supporting the Kurds. Mona Yacoubian is an analyst at the Congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
Well, I think if the US pulls out or even leaves just a small, residual force, the Kurds will find themselves I think in a very precarious position. And the semi-autonomous area that they've managed to carve out of northeastern Syria, the system of governance and security, all of that, the Kurdish project if you will, I think will indeed come under threat should the U.S. withdraw.
An even greater threat to the Kurds is neighboring Turkey. For decades the Turkish government has fought an armed KURDISH insurgency Inside Turkey, called the PKK, that demands an independent, breakaway state. Both the U.S. and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Turkey says the Syrian Kurdish forces are one and the same as the PKK and will not be tolerated on its border. In January of last year the Turkish military moved across the border into Syria and invaded the Kurdish controlled area Afrin, easily pushing back the Kurdish forces.Turkey continues to threaten another invasion into Kurdish areas across the border in Syria, to push the Kurdish forces back from the border.
The Kurds have already been pushed out of a canton further west in Syria in Afrin. There the Turks have invaded and occupied this space. And by all accounts, at least from the Kurdish side, this has led to forced displacement, atrocities, even ethnic cleansing. So I think that the Kurds view as a very serious existential threat the prospect of any sort of Turkish invasion further into Northeastern Syria.
The experience of a Turkish invasion into their Syrian territory has shaken leadership in Kurdish Syria.
When Turkey started attacking Afrin we launched a resistance. The resistance went on for 58 days. We defended ourselves from the attacks and didn't attack anyone. We didn't attack the Turkish government and we didn't even attack the Syrian government. We were just defending ourselves. Look at the border, we are not occupying any Turkish cities.
Because Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance,the White House is in a tough position deciding whom to back. The Kurds are American battlefield partners who have fought and died alongside US troops, but Turkey is an important NATO partner. President Trump's shock announcement caused the Kurds to reach out to an unlikely ally, the Syrian regime. They have been at odds with the Damascus regime for years, but doing a deal with the regime may be the only way the Kurds could hold off a Turkish attack. Dr Abdulkarim Omar, co-Chairman of foreign affairs for the Kurdish authority in Northeastern Syria, says the Kurds have also reached out to Russia.
Dr Abdulkarim Omar:
When Trump tweeted, we had a meeting with the Russians and gave them a road map to find a solution for Syria, but the Damascus regime is not ready to solve the problem. The regime is still thinking in the same mentality from before 2011. Assad wants to control all of Syria through the military.
Despite the Kurds' unsuccessful attempt to enter peace talks last year, further discussions with the Damascus regime are inevitable.
I think ultimately for the Kurds the end game is one of survival and lies very much in trying to reach some sort of negotiation with the Syrian regime.
All the while, the fight against ISIS isn't over. The group may have lost all its territory, but it hasn't died. It is still all over the area the Syrian Democratic Forces controls, hidden amongst the population. Roadside bombs and assassinations are common.
The end of ISIS geographically and as a state doesn't mean the end of terrorism. That battle will start now. ISIS is underground and has tens of sleeper cells. Their ideology is still on the ground in the areas that they used to control.
Meanwhile, the White House remains vague about the number of US troops to stay on the ground in North East Syria while trying to bring in soldiers from partner countries such as the UK or France. So far there has been no progress on this plan. As Syria's Kurds enter this unstable new phase of the war, they find their US allies on the ground inconstant. And the future of their hard-won territory at the mercy of others.
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Jane is a New York-based special correspondent for the NewsHour, reporting on and from across the Middle East, Africa and beyond. She was previously based in Beirut. Reporting highlights include the lead up to and aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, front-line dispatches from the war against ISIS in Iraq, an up-close look at Houthi-controlled Yemen, and reports on the war and famine in South Sudan. Areas of particular interest are the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Islamist groups around the world, and US foreign policy.
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