- - Wednesday, October 23, 2019

JERUSALEM — For the Kurds, it’s a familiar position — left to fend for themselves while bigger, more powerful forces haggle over their fate.

Publicly, Kurdish officials in both Syria and northern Iraq say they remain grateful to President Trump and the U.S. for the support and security guarantees they have negotiated with Turkey, even as Turkish, Russia and Syrian government forces engage in a pincer movement to drive hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their homes along the Turkish-Syrian border.

“We THANK President Trump for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack and jihadist groups on our people,” Gen. Mazloum Abdi, commander of the U.S.-allied and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) tweeted Wednesday.

But it is also not hard to find mounting fear and uncertainty among many Kurds, a stateless people with significant populations in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, over what comes next — and whether Mr. Trump’s promise of a “permanent” cease-fire in Syria will be kept.

“We have not noticed any sign that Turkey is going to implement the cease-fire agreement, which will aggravate the humanitarian crisis in our region,” Ilhan Ahmed, executive president of the Syrian Democratic Council, told a House Oversight hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “We have been thrown to the wolves.”

Mr. Trump’s optimism also comes in the face of widespread images of Syrian Kurds angrily protesting the departure of U.S. forces, warning the withdrawal leaves them at the mercy of advancing Turkish forces. Even with the pause in fighting begun by a U.S.-brokered cease-fire, the Turkish offensive has left dozens of civilians dead and driven more than 200,000 people from their homes in the region, humanitarian observers say.

The unease is evident in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, which has already begun taking in thousands of Syrian Kurdish refugees fleeing the chaos across the border.

Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani this week again thanked the U.S.-led coalition for helping turn the tide in the fight to roll back Islamic State — a fight in which Kurdish militias played a major role on the ground. U.S. forces leaving Syria will be posted temporarily in Iraq, although how long they will be allowed to stay was a source of tension this week between Washington and Baghdad.

On Tuesday Safeen Dizayee, the de facto foreign minister for the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), met with UN officials to discuss humanitarian relief for the crush of recent Syrian refugees. Last week around 2,000 Syrians, mostly Kurds, fled to northern Iraq from Syria. By Tuesday numbers had grown toward 7,169, according to Kurdistan officials, with many settling at a refugee camp near Bardarash.

The refugees said they fled Sere Kaniye, a Syrian town on the Turkish border more than 220 miles northwest of Bardarash, and had to pay smugglers to get them out.

Concerns in Kurdistan

The refugees are only one concern of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

In the capital of Erbil, there is a worry that instability in Syria and in Baghdad will leave the region isolated. Weeks of protests in southern and central Iraq left more than 130 protesters dead and have led to calls for the Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign.

Mr. Abdul Mahdi has been working with the KRG’s government to smooth the way for budgetary agreements that are essential to paying salaries and paying for security, particularly the Kurdistan armed forces, the peshmerga. ISIS attacked checkpoints of the Iraqi Security Forces on Monday night killing several.

The wider problem in northern Iraq is how the new Turkish-Russian deal agreed to by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday in Sochi will work, and what it means for Kurds who have carved out a significant autonomous region inside Syria.

The Associated Press reported that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu assured Kurdish military chief Mazlum Abdi in a Wednesday call that the Russian military police, who began patrolling the area, will guarantee security for civilians in the border zone.

But Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, warned at virtually the same time that if Kurds fail to leave the buffer zone demanded by Turkey, Russian and Syrian troops will step back and “the remaining Kurdish units will be steamrolled by the Turkish army.”

Turkey has secured an agreement that allows it to operate within Syria, in places up to a depth of 20 miles. Turkey also operates in northern Iraq, where its forces fight the militant Turkish separatist movement Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from mountain bases. This means that the conflict in Syria impacts Erbil, where most of the trade comes from Turkey.

On Capitol Hill, Ms. Ahmed showed lawmakers photos of the damage and disruption she said resulted from Turkish-backed forces in Syria, including one image that showed suspected chemical burns on children. She said that Islamic State detainees that had been held in Kurdish-run detention camps, have escaped in the midst of the chaos, including at least eight prisoners of European background.

She called the situation “dark and dangerous times” that has “heralded chaos and bloodshed.”

“The invasion itself constitutes an act of aggression that is prohibited by international law,” she said. “The actions of Turkey constitute an act of genocide against the Kurdish population.”

“We did not expect from the U.S. to defend us, but at least to prevent attacks on us,” she added.

Lauren Meier reported from Washington for this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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