Civilians from the village of Tal Tamr attend the funeral of an Arab fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town in the countryside of Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province on December 21, 2018, who was killed while fighting against ISIS in Hajin. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – While the US is officially pulling out, Syrian, Iranian, and Turkish forces and their allies are beefing up their numbers at key locations in Syria in anticipation of the American departure, leaving Kurdish forces fearful of “genocide.”
"The execute order for Syria has been signed," a US military spokesperson told AFP on Sunday, confirming the withdrawal is officially in process though no timeline has been revealed.
A senior official told Reuters that a specific plan is being developed.
Initial reports when US President Donald Trump first made his shock declaration in that ISIS was “defeated in Syria” were that the withdrawal of US troops would be quick.
After near-universal backlash to his announcement, Trump said on Saturday that the withdrawal would be “slow & highly coordinated.”
That coordination appears to be with NATO ally Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria… and he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right “next door.” Our troops are coming home!” tweeted Trump.
Erdogan said that security across the border is Turkey’s responsibility.
“We consider the security and peace of the Arabs in Syria as our own business. We see the problems of the Kurds as our own,” he said on Monday, Anadolu Agency reported.
The goal of Turkey in Syria is “the freedom of our Arab and Kurdish brothers.”
While the US prepares to wind down operations, other actors are beefing up their forces.
Damascus has bolstered its forces in eastern Deir ez-Zor, around al-Mayadin and al-Bukamal, across the Euphrates River from territories where the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are battling ISIS, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The Syrian regime forces include the elite Russian-backed Tiger Forces led by Maj. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan who has directed multiple military operations including in Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus.
Iranian-backed militias are also reportedly boosting their numbers in the area.
To the northwest, north of Aleppo, Syrian militias backed by Turkey are being deployed along the contact lines with the SDF-backed Manbij Military Council. Turkey has also sent troops and equipment across the border in preparation for an anticipated offensive against Kurdish forces in Manbij and east of the Euphrates River.
A man wearing a Turkish officer's uniform flashes the Grey Wolves (a Turkish far-right ultranationalist organization) sign, during a demonstration in support of neighbouring Turkey in the Syrian town of Bizaa, north of Aleppo on December 21, 2018. Photo: Bakr Alkasem/AFP
The SDF, meanwhile, continue to battle ISIS, who has stepped up its attacks in recent days, a direct consequences of Trump’s announcement, said spokesperson Kino Gabriel.
“This decision will affect the conduct of military operations and will affect the stability and safety that the areas of north and east Syria live in,” he warned on Monday.
On Sunday, the SDF announced they evacuated more than 1,000 civilians from central Hajin and moved them to safety.
According to the Observatory, more than 7,500 civilians have escaped ISIS-held territory in Deir ez-Zor in December. The United Nations said it was concerned for the safety of some 6,000 civilians believed still trapped.
The SDF have warned that the offensive against ISIS would be harmed if Turkey launches an attack, forcing the Kurdish forces to leave the battlefield with ISIS in order to defend their cities and villages.
“More than four million are exposed to the danger of massive displacement, escaping from possible genocide,” said Gabriel, pointing to the Afrin offensive as an example.
At the start of the year, Turkey attacked the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria. The United Nation’s refugee department (UNHCR) estimates 151,000 people were displaced by the fighting.
Turkey alleged the offensive was a counter-terror operation against PKK-allied groups. Kurds report Turkish forces and their allied Syrian militias have carried out ethnic cleansing in the enclave that is now marred by insecurity.
Erdogan said last week a military operation against Kurds east of the Euphrates will take place within months.
Despite the threat against their territory, Gabriel said they will continue the war against ISIS as long as they can.
“We will continue our operations with the international coalition, continue training, and maintain security and stability as long as this partnership continues,” he said.