As US forces withdraw from Syria, Kurds await Putin-Erdogan meeting

Dozens of American trailers and military vehicles loaded with equipment crossed into Iraq on Monday

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during their meeting in Ankara on September 16, 2019. Turkish President Erdogan, Russian President Putin and Iranian President Rouhani are in Ankara for a trilateral meeting on Syria. / AFP / POOL / Pavel Golovkin
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US troops made their final exit from northern Syria early on Monday, leaving the fate of the region hanging in the balance before a meeting between Russia President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart scheduled for Tuesday.

About 100 trailers and military vehicles loaded with equipment crossed the Sahela border into northern Iraq on Monday with American military personnel loaded into cars.

Footage of heavily armed US military vehicles en route to Iraq showed locals hurling stones and rotten fruit as the American forces inched their way towards the border crossing.

Demonstrators bid farewell to the departing US troops holding placards that read, “Thanks to the American people, but Trump betrayed us”.

US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria has drawn sharp criticism from US politicians and Kurdish groups, which have accused Mr Trump of “enabling genocide”.

The American military fought alongside the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces to rout ISIS militants from northern Syria, including their de facto capital Raqqa, with Kurds bearing the brunt of body count.

Turkey's military offensive in northern Syria against Kurdish groups called Operation Peace Spring has been put on hold since Thursday after talks between officials in Ankara with US Vice President Mike Pence.

In response to a tweet by the US president claiming the ceasefire was holding, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces said, “Mr President, what makes you think you have the right to drive millions of Kurds out of their homes and resettle them elsewhere?”

“Isn’t this ethnic cleansing?” Mustafa Bali wrote on Monday.

Mark Esper, the US Defence Secretary, said at the weekend that about 1,000 troops would redeploy to western Iraq where they would continue to fight ISIS militants and "help defend Iraq".

On Sunday, however, the New York Times reported that Mr Trump was in favour of keeping a small contingent of about 200 American forces in northern Syria to counter the remaining ISIS presence and block Syrian and Russian forces from taking control of oilfields. Mr Esper said on Monday that the move was under discussion.

At home, one of the key critics of Mr Trump’s Syria policy, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, reversed his position. He said on Sunday that he now believed “historic solutions” were possible after the US withdrawal.

In an interview with Fox News, Mr Graham said a conversation he had with Mr Trump at the weekend had fuelled his optimism that a solution could be reached where the security of Turkey and the Kurds was guaranteed and fighters from ISIS contained.

"I am increasingly optimistic that we can have some historic solutions in Syria that have eluded us for years if we play our cards right," Mr Graham said on Sunday Morning Futures.

Mr Graham said Mr Trump was prepared to use US air power over a demilitarised zone occupied by international forces, adding that the use of air power could help ensure ISIS fighters who had been held in the area did not "break out".

The SDF on Sunday said they had pulled all fighters from the Syrian border town of Ras Al Ain as part of the ceasefire brokered by Mr Pence during his visit to Turkey.

The town is one of two strategic hubs along Syria’s northern border with Turkey where Ankara is attempting to establish a “safe zone” about 30 kilometres into Syrian territory. Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as a security threat because of their links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

The SDF has also ceded the key urban centres of Manbij and Kobani, this time to Syrian government forces as part of a deal brokered by Russia that would slow Ankara's push by placing Russian and Syrian troops in the path of the Turkish offensive.

The US withdrawal on Monday now means all eyes will be trained on the meeting between Mr Putin and the Turkish president in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on Tuesday.

Since entering the Syrian war in September 2015 at the behest of the embattled president, Bashar Al Assad, the Kremlin has emerged as a key player in the conflict having all but saved the Syrian regime from defeat.

The talks are likely to be dominated by Mr Erdogan’s insistence on pushing ahead with his plans to establish a Syrian “safe zone” free of Kurdish fighters. His plans may meet resistance from Mr Putin, who has repeatedly said that foreign troops must leave Syria and that full territorial control of the country must be handed back to Mr Assad.

The Syrian regime’s close ally, Iran, echoed the Russian position this week saying the country was against Turkey’s plan to establish military posts in Syria. “The issues should be resolved by diplomatic means,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Monday. “Syria's integrity should be respected."

On Monday, Mr Erdogan vowed to take "necessary" further steps in Syria after his meeting with the Russian president on Tuesday, by which time the US-brokered ceasefire would have expired.

"We will take up this process with Mr Putin and after that we will take the necessary steps," he said.