Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town

A convoy of ambulances and other vehicles evacuating fighters and injured members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as a well as wounded civilians, leaves the northeastern Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain on Oct. 20, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2019

Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town

  • The evacuation opens the way for Turkish-backed forces to take over in first pullback under US-brokered cease-fire
  • The Trump administration negotiated the accord after heavy criticism at home and abroad

RAS AL-AIN, Syria: The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fully withdrew from a Turkish-encircled town in northern Syria on Sunday, in what appeared to be the start of a wider pullout under a cease-fire deal.
Ankara launched a cross-border attack against Syria’s Kurds on October 9 after the United States announced a military pullout from the war-torn country’s north.
A US-brokered cease-fire was announced late Thursday, giving Kurdish forces until Tuesday evening to withdraw from a buffer area Ankara wants to create on Syrian territory along its southern frontier.
The deal requires the SDF — the de facto army of Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria — to pull out of the border zone extending 32 kilometers (20 miles) deep into Syrian territory, the length of which is not clear.
The Kurds have agreed to withdraw from an Arab-majority stretch of border from Tal Abyad to Ras Al-Ain, around 120 kilometers (70 miles).
But Turkey ultimately wants a much longer “safe zone” to stretch 440 kilometers along the frontier.
On Saturday, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said Kurdish forces would withdraw from the 120-kilometer zone as soon as they were allowed out of Ras Al-Ain, which was besieged by Turkey’s troops and Syrian proxies.
The SDF later said its fighters had completely evacuated the border town as part of the truce agreement, after Turkey’s defense ministry confirmed they were departing.
An AFP reporter on the ground saw at least 50 vehicles, including ambulances, leaving the town hospital, from which flames erupted shortly after their departure.
Dozens of fighters in military attire left on pickups, passing by checkpoints manned by Ankara-allied Syrian fighters, he said.
In the town of Tal Tamr, Samira, 45, was among women and men carrying SDF flags awaiting the convoy from Ras Al-Ain.
“I can’t believe Sari Kani has fallen,” she said, using the Kurdish name for Ras Al-Ain.
“We’re saluting our fighters who defended us, though the great powers betrayed our people,” she told AFP.
Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US special forces from northern Syria in what was widely seen as betrayal of the Kurds and a green light for a Turkish attack.
The Kurds have been a key ally to Washington in the US-backed fight against Daesh in Syria, but Turkey views them as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish militants on its own soil.
A week ago, the Pentagon said Trump had ordered up to 1,000 troops out of northern Syria.
Earlier Sunday, US forces withdrew from their largest base in northern Syria, the Observatory said.
The correspondent in Tal Tamr saw more than 70 US armored vehicles escorted by helicopters drive eastwards on the highway, some flying the American flag.
The Observatory said the convoy was evacuating the Sarrin military base on the edge of the planned buffer zone.
Sunday’s pullout, the fourth such withdrawal of American forces in a week, left Syria’s northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa empty of US troops, Abdel Rahman said.
Since October 9, Turkish-led bombardment and fire has killed 114 civilians and displaced at least 300,000 people from their homes, the Observatory says, in the latest humanitarian crisis in Syria’s eight-year civil war.
More than 250 SDF fighters and 190 pro-Ankara combatants have lost their lives, it says.
Ankara says it has lost five soldiers.
On Sunday, the Observatory said pro-Ankara fighters executed three civilians who were hiding in an industrial part of Ras Al-Ain.
On Twitter, Trump cited Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday as saying the cease-fire was “holding up very nicely.”
“There are some minor skirmishes that have ended quickly. New areas being resettled with the Kurds,” he said.
The Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syrian said they were “perplexed” by Trump’s statement on a successful truce.
“Turkey and its mercenaries have absolutely not abided by it and repeatedly violated it,” they said in a statement.
“Trump saying the Kurds have been resettled in new areas opened the way to ethnic cleansing,” it warned, calling for international protection for the displaced.
International observers have warned that Turkey’s incursion could force Kurdish fighters to redeploy from prisons and camps where they are guarding thousands of suspected Daesh fighters and family members, making way for jailbreaks.
That has raised fears of a resurgence by the extremists, whom the SDF expelled from their last scrap of territory in March but who continue to claim deadly attacks in Kurdish-held areas.


Iraqi protesters block commercial ports, split capital

Updated 19 November 2019

Iraqi protesters block commercial ports, split capital

  • Iraqi civilians are increasingly relying on boats to ferry them across the Tigris River as ongoing standoffs shut key bridges in Baghdad
  • The Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar bridges connect both sides of the city by passing over the river

BAGHDAD: Anti-government protesters blocked access to a second major commercial port in southern Iraq on Tuesday, as bridge closures effectively split the capital in half, causing citizens to rely on boats for transport to reach the other side of the city.
Since anti-government protests began Oct. 1, at least 320 people have been killed and thousands wounded in Baghdad and the mostly Shiite southern provinces. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in the tens of thousands over what they say is widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, despite the country’s oil wealth.
Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and stun guns to repel protesters, tactics that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday would be punished with sanctions.
“We will not stand idle while the corrupt officials make the Iraqi people suffer. Today, I am affirming the United States will use our legal authorities to sanction corrupt individuals that are stealing Iraqis’ wealth and those killing and wounding peaceful protesters,” he said in remarks to reporters in Washington.
“Like the Iraqi people taking to the streets today, our sanctions will not discriminate between religious sect or ethnicity,” he added. “They will simply target those who do wrong to the Iraqi people, no matter who they are.”
Over a dozen protesters blocked the main entrance to Khor Al-Zubair port, halting trade activity as oil tankers and other trucks carrying goods were unable to enter or exit. The port imports commercial goods and materials as well as refined oil products.
Crude from Qayara oil field in Ninewa province, in northern Iraq, is also exported from the port.
Khor Al-Zubair is the second largest port in the country. Protesters had burned tires and cut access to the main Gulf commercial port in Umm Qasr on Monday and continued to block roads Tuesday.
Iraqi civilians are increasingly relying on boats to ferry them across the Tigris River as ongoing standoffs between demonstrators and Iraqi security forces on three key bridges has shut main thoroughfares connecting east and west Baghdad.
The Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahrar bridges, which have been partially occupied by protesters following days of deadly clashes, connect both sides of the city by passing over the Tigris River. The blockages have left Iraqis who must make the daily commute for work, school and other day-to-day activities with no choice but to rely on river boats.
“After the bridges were cut, all the pressure is on us here,” said Hasan Lilo, a boat owner in the capital. “We offer a reasonable transportation means that helps the people.”