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Syrians React To U.S. Troops Winding Down ISIS Mission In Syria

NOEL KING, HOST:

Last week, President Trump announced his decision to withdraw U.S. ground troops from Syria. He said ISIS has been defeated. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in northeastern Syria, where U.S. troops have been operating. She's been talking to people on the ground who will be directly affected by this decision. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.

KING: So you arrived there just as word hit about President Trump's decision to withdraw about 2,200 troops. What have people been telling you in these towns that you're visiting?

SHERLOCK: There's a deep sense of betrayal here. So we've been driving around these towns. And in these places, you can clearly see the U.S. military bases that are dotted across this landscape. There are these sprawling complexes with mud banks to fences and watchtowers.

In one town near a base, we met Haji Haider (ph). He's a blacksmith by trade. This area used to be controlled by ISIS, and he's lived through all of the offensive to push them out. It was these local Kurdish troops working with the U.S. military that pushed ISIS out. And people here feel angry that the U.S. is leaving now.

HAJI HAIDER: (Through interpreter) Because all this job - all the war that they did together, and now they are leaving this quickly. You don't understand it. And people are afraid. He said that, like, it seems like people - they just - they sell this country.

SHERLOCK: So the U.S. allies here - this Kurdish militia - basically formed the ground force that fought ISIS, and they lost thousands of men and women on these front lines. In another town, we met a man who said he lost seven people - all of them young, in their 20s - fighting ISIS.

KING: So is it fair to say that the Kurds, our allies, are very upset about this decision?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. They're really trying to get a handle on the news. We've spoken to senior Kurdish military officials and spokesmen, and they say that they first learned of the troop withdrawal on television in the news.

So they're angry, but they're also saying that there are serious implications to this. Kino Gabriel is a spokesman for the U.S.-backed militia, the SDF. And he's worried that this decision will actually allow ISIS to expand again.

KINO GABRIEL: I think a lot of people gave their lives in this fight. And I think it would be a big lose to throw everything they have sacrificed for. And everything - I think it's going to be - to go in vain if we allowed ISIS to re-emerge.

SHERLOCK: He believes that the U.S. withdrawing essentially leaves the Kurdish authorities who control this part of Syria exposed to new threats. And they're going to have to redirect troops against those instead of fighting the remaining pockets of ISIS.

KING: Let's talk about the new threats to the Kurds because Turkey is threatening to attack the Kurds there. What are Kurds telling you about that?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. Well, this is their main concern, even more so than ISIS. Turkey sees the Kurds in this area as being aligned with terrorists, and they've been moving troops to the border. So the Kurds are trying to look at options for stopping this offensive.

KING: Do the Kurds have any options or backup plans to make up for the loss of U.S. support? Anyone else they can call on?

SHERLOCK: They said that all options are on the table. At the moment, they're trying to reach out to all sides. They've been talking to their Western allies, France in particular. And then also, on the other side of the civil war in Syria, reaching out to the Syrian regime.

You know, this is an oil-rich part of the country, and the regime wants to take back control. The Kurds say they might be open to striking some kind of deal.

And one Kurdish military official we spoke to said they would even be willing to coordinate with Syrian troops in an offensive against Turkey, should Turkey try to invade.

KING: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in northeastern Syria. Ruth, thank you so much.

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