Kurds brace for withdrawal of US troops from Syria

As the US begins to withdraw some 2,000 forces from northern Syria, the Kurdish people face an uncertain future. CNN's Clarissa Ward reports.

Posted: Jan 14, 2019 10:16 PM
Updated: Jan 14, 2019 10:20 PM

Every Friday, they come to the cemetery in Kobani, Syria, to hand out sweets and remember their loved ones, killed in the fight against ISIS.

Toward the back are the fresh graves. On a recent visit, a group of mourning women stand by the grave of 27-year-old Mahmoud Rassoul, killed in an ISIS ambush near the town of Deir Ezzor less than two weeks ago.

His mother, Najma, slumps down into the churned up earth and kisses the photograph on his headstone.

"My son, my son, please get up, please," she wails.

A family member steps in to lift her up from the mud.

Around 8,000 Syrian Kurds have been killed in the fight against ISIS. They have been the United States' strongest and most steadfast ally on the ground. While ISIS is close to defeat, the fighting continues in the east, near the border with Iraq. It's a battle the Kurds may soon be fighting alone, as the United States begins to withdraw its forces from Syria.

Najma is bitter as she considers the American announcement and its impact on their future.

"They got what they wanted," she says. "They used the Kurds to get rid of ISIS and now they're leaving us. America was supposed to have our back. They're going to leave us to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. They sacrificed us and now they're leaving."

Driving through Kurdish parts of Northern Syria, we were told time and time again: The Americans made promises, promises that now sound hollow.

The Syrian Kurds are now in a precarious position. Just across the border is Turkey, which considers them to be terrorists. To the west is the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Iranian and Russian backers.

In the town of Arimah, we meet Kurdish military commander and spokesman Sharfan Darwish. He tells us the Americans provided the Kurds with a much-needed buffer. In return, the Kurds took the fight to ISIS.

"After all those years that we fought terrorism together it is their minimum duty to help guarantee our security," he says. "No one expected them to stick around forever, but the timing was strange and the way it was announced was very strange."

He drives us to the Kurdish front lines with the Assad regime, where the intricate patchwork of different powers can be seen up close. A joint Russian/regime base squats by the road.

The Kurds and the regime have opened channels for dialogue through the Russians and there is speculation a deal will be made between them once the Americans pull out.

Less than five minutes away, the Americans are still flying their flag but it likely won't be there for long. US military hardware is already beginning to move out.

No one knows what comes next for the Kurds. On the road from Arimah, we happen upon a funeral. Two Kurdish security officers were killed by a roadside bomb, a reminder of the daily dangers faced here.

As people wait for the coffins to be brought out for burial, a hush falls over the crowd and it is quiet except for the sound of people weeping softly.

Back in the cemetery in Kobani, Adel Qassim tells us proudly about his daughter, Peyman Tolhildan. The 19-year-old was a fighter with the Kurdish YPG militia. She was killed when ISIS attacked the school where she was based.

Tolhildan's mother lovingly strokes the photograph on her daughter's headstone as he speaks.

"She was so brave. She was the commander of her unit," Qassim says. "She fought them off for 13 hours. When they ran out of ammunition, they blew themselves up, to avoid being captured."

There was nothing left but some bones and her boots.

Asked what he thinks about the US withdrawal, he pauses before answering.

"It's a mistake, it's a mistake. They have left us in the middle of the road."

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