Two top political leaders of the Syrian Kurdish alliance and co-chairs of the Syrian Democratic Council Riad Darar (R) and Ilham Ahmed (L) deliver a speech during a press-conference, in Paris, on December 21, 2018. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Kurdish leaders from Syria met with French officials in Paris on Friday to shore up support in the war against ISIS after the US announced their withdrawal from the battleground.
The Kurdish self-administration in northern Syria faces the threat of a resurgent ISIS as US firepower pulls out. They are also concerned about a possible offensive by Turkey, an onslaught that the US had been working to prevent.
Ilham Ahmad, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the armed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), warned that a Turkish attack would jeopardize the war against ISIS.
"We will continue our mission, but confronting this terrorism will be difficult because our forces will be forced to withdraw from the frontlines in Deir ez-Zor to take up positions on the border with Turkey to counter any attack we may face," she said in a press conference after meeting with French officials.
France has forces on the ground in northern Syria, part of the US-led coalition.
The two co-chairs came to Paris to ask France to “uphold their task in the region until a political solution is found,” said Ahmed.
"We're asking the French for diplomatic support to develop dialogue and assure peace and stability in the region," she added.
Advisors to French President Emmanuel Macron, who met with the Kurdish delegation, passed along a “message of support and solidarity and explained the exchanges France had with American authorities to continue the fight against ISIS,” Elysee said in a statement.
While discussions were happening in Paris, ISIS launched a counter-attack against the SDF near Hajin, the key town the Kurdish-led forces had taken last week after weeks of deadly stalemate.
“ISIS is launching a huge attack, heavy clashes are taking place there,” said SDF press officer Mustafa Bali.
The SDF came under ISIS heavy weapon fire and car bombs, Bali said.
“Only 35% from Hajin is liberated by our forces. We think that ISIS will keep launching attacks in the future,” he said, contradicting Donald Trump’s declaration that ISIS was “defeated in Syria.”
France has said they will not follow Trump’s lead and withdraw from Syria prematurely.
“We have a divergence of analysis with the United States,” France’s Defence Minister Florence Parly tweeted on Friday. It is not known if she met with the Syrian Kurdish delegation.
“France has paid a heavy price because of ISIS. The fight against terrorism is a government priority. Our analysis: we have a job to finish.”
The US military recently estimated that some 2,000 – 2,500 ISIS militants still remain in Syria’s Euphrates River valley. Analysts put the number of militants in both Syria and Iraq at 20,000 to 30,000.
If the militants are given space to regroup or Turkey launches its attack, Syria’s Kurds are worried they may “lose control” of more than 3,000 ISIS prisoners in their jails, including foreign fighters.
Riad Darar, Ahmed’s co-chair, explained in Paris they will not deliberately release their captives, “But we fear that the chaos will not allow us to protect the premises where they are located."
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that their planned military offensive was temporarily put on hold.
"The phone call we made with Trump, as well as the contacts of our diplomatic and security units, and the statements made by the American side led us to wait for a while,” Erdogan said in Istanbul, Anadolu Agency reported.
"Of course this is not an open ended waiting process," he added.
Last week, before his phone call with Trump and the US announcement, Erdogan had said they could attack Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates River within days.
Now Erdogan said the operation may come “in the next months” and that efforts to “ensure regional security” are being done in coordination with Russia and Iran.
Updated at 10:32 pm