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This Christmas, Some Syrians Fear Consequences Of U.S. Troop Pullout

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we've been discussing throughout the weekend, President Trump suddenly announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops that have been fighting against ISIS in Syria. That's what triggered General Mattis' resignation. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is one of the few Western journalists currently in northeastern Syria. She's been talking to the people who live and work there, and she has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Qamishli is ready for Christmas. In this Kurdish, Christian and Arab city, the busy streets are decorated with twinkly lights. Shops sell tinsel and plastic trees. But, this year, there's only one thing on people's minds - Donald Trump.

HATEM HASSAN: (Speaking Kurdish).

SHERLOCK: Hatem Hassan owns a money exchange shop in the local market.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONEY COUNTING MACHINE)

SHERLOCK: As he counts Syrian notes on the machine, he tries to decipher President Trump's thinking. Why decide on this sudden U.S. troop withdrawal?

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) He is a capitalist president. He is looking for money, and he's not strategic. But thinking this way will lose America its allies in the world.

SHERLOCK: Kurdish authorities who control this part of Syria sent men and women to fight in the American-led war against ISIS in this region. Hassan tells us he lost seven members of his own family on the front line with ISIS, all of them young people just in their 20s.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) If the U.S. leaves, we will curse them as traitors. The Kurds helped them to destroy ISIS. And now they say, OK, we just leave? We sacrificed and lost a lot of young men and women, thousands of people in this fight. Yeah, no one will forgive them.

SHERLOCK: The U.S. withdrawal leaves this area exposed and vulnerable to a new attack - an offensive by Turkey. Turkey sees the Kurdish authorities that control this region as being aligned with the PKK militia, whom it considers terrorists. In recent days, it's amassed troops on this border.

KINO GABRIEL: It's not only one enemy that we are facing but different ones.

SHERLOCK: Kino Gabriel is a spokesman with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led and U.S.-supported militia that fights ISIS in Syria. He warns they may now have to pull troops from the last front line against ISIS - in Deir ez-Zor province - to redeploy them elsewhere.

GABRIEL: Of course, any attacks from the north or from any other side would definitely affect the number of troops in Deir ez-Zor area. That would affect, of course, the battle and the fight against ISIS there.

SHERLOCK: With the prospect of U.S. troops leaving their bases in Syria, Kurdish officials are trying to find a new ally to ward off a Turkish attack.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: One of those options may be to strike a deal with the Syrian government, who also wants to take back control of this-oil rich part of the country.

MAURICE SULEIMAN: (Through interpreter) We are all one people, the Syrian government and Kurds together.

SHERLOCK: It's an option that some here are happy with. Sixty-three-year-old Maurice Suleiman runs a cafe, where elderly men gather to while away evenings playing cards.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: He says he's tired of foreign meddling in Syria.

SULEIMAN: (Through interpreter) This is Kurdish, Arabic, Armenian land. We don't like the Turkish, Americans or anyone occupying this area.

SHERLOCK: Like everyone else, he fears for the safety of this region. But, for now, he wants us to stop talking about these problems and invites us, instead, to celebrate Christmas with him in Syria.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, northern Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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