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Kurds Leave Northern Syria As Truce With Turkey Is Set To Expire

Oct 21, 2019
Originally published on October 21, 2019 11:05 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Kurdish civilians and military are continuing to evacuate along the northeastern border between Syria and Turkey. A U.S.-brokered pause in hostilities is set to expire tomorrow. But Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has warned that his forces are set to move into the region on Tuesday, whether the Kurds have finished evacuating or not. And the leader of the Kurdish militia that had been the U.S.'s strongest ally against ISIS in Syria is now using the term ethnic cleansing to describe what Turkey wants as it moves into Kurdish territories. Mona Yacoubian is a former State Department Middle East specialist. She's now a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace here in Washington, D.C. Ms. Yacoubian, thanks for being with us.

MONA YACOUBIAN: Thank you.

KING: So Kurds are reportedly evacuating through civilians safe zones. How well has this cease-fire been honored by each side?

YACOUBIAN: The cease-fire has been somewhat shaky. It has held, but there have been sporadic shelling and fighting over the course of the weekend. So while the Kurds are certainly fulfilling their obligation to evacuate the area, there's still been a bit of fighting and concern.

KING: OK. NPR spoke to the Kurdish militia leader, a man known as Mazloum Kobani Abdi. He leads the Syrian democratic forces that had been America's closest ally fighting ISIS in Syria. And he predicted - he told us he predicted an ethnic cleansing of the Kurds if the U.S. does not change course. Former CIA chief and Iraq Commander General David Petraeus says he has the same concern. He said that in an interview with NPR on Saturday. What is the basis for those fears?

YACOUBIAN: Well, those fears are about essentially taking areas that are majority Kurdish in population and forcing those populations out and essentially sort of demographically re-engineering those areas, changing the composition of them. And there's some precedent for this. Turkey, earlier last year, invaded another Kurdish canton in western Syria. And there, they also ended up forcibly displacing a number of Kurdish people. The human rights organizations have accused Turkish-backed forces of committing abuses, and I think there's real concern that this could happen again.

KING: OK. So that is a very, very serious concern. When the cease-fire ends on Tuesday, what happens then? Can Turkey do whatever it wants? Has Turkey said what it will do?

YACOUBIAN: It's not at all clear what's going to happen next. The cease-fire ending on Tuesday coincides with Turkish President Erdogan meeting with Russian President Putin in Russia. And so here I think what will likely happen is a deal of some sort negotiated between Russia and Turkey - how to delineate their forces in this area.

KING: This meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin is happening without the United States, without the Syrians, without the Kurds present. Does that worry you? Can you explain what Russia might hope to get out of this meeting, what Turkey might hope to get out of this meeting? And is it worrisome that there's no U.S. presence?

YACOUBIAN: For sure. I mean, this is - again, this is indicative of a shift in the power dynamics. Once the U.S. has announced its withdrawal and is in the process of withdrawing from this area, Russia is really emerging as the key power broker in this part of northeastern Syria. And I think most importantly, no one is really going to be watching out for the Kurds or their interests. They have no say in the talks that will be taking place tomorrow.

KING: And they had no say in the cease-fire that's already been brokered, right?

YACOUBIAN: That's exactly right. So they really are on the losing end of of any of these negotiations. unfortunately.

KING: What role do you think the U.S. should play after Turkey has moved into those Kurdish areas?

YACOUBIAN: Well, I unfortunately think the U.S. really at this point has less and less leverage and therefore is not able to play a significant role. Of course, the United States, as a leader in the world, can continue to raise issues around human rights abuses and other things that may happen. But the fact of the matter is without a real force on the ground, it's going to be very difficult for the United States to influence the course of events there.

KING: We've heard this morning that U.S. troops are being moved out of Syria - out of northeastern Syria and into Iraq. Have you heard that news?

YACOUBIAN: Yes, I certainly have.

KING: What will they be doing in Iraq? Yeah.

YACOUBIAN: Well, I think it makes sense. And this is perhaps the best possible alternative in a series of bad options, where the United States may well continue to try and prosecute the battle against ISIS from Iraq. But this will be far less effective than if we had maintained forces on the ground inside Syria.

KING: OK. And lastly, Turkey has said that it plans to repatriate Syrian refugees, many of whom are Arabs - these are not Kurdish people - into these traditionally Kurdish areas of northern Syria. And a lot of people are raising concerns about that. Can you explain why?

YACOUBIAN: Well, of course, because, again, back to what we spoke about at the beginning. These areas - many of them are Kurdish-majority in northeastern Syria. Turkey has essentially been - President Erdogan has been threatening to move back 1 to 2 million Syrian Arabs. And this would, of course, really constitute a displacement of the local populations and, frankly, sow the seeds, potentially, for new conflict down the road.

KING: OK. Mona Yacoubian is a former State Department official. She's now a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. Thank you so much for your time today.

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