Kurdish official asks for US clarifications over withdrawal

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s Kurds are awaiting clarifications from the U.S. over America’s plans to pull out its troops from Syria following comments made by a top White House aide that appeared to counter earlier comments by President Donald Trump, a Syrian Kurdish official said Monday.

Speaking to The Associated Press from northern Syria Monday, Badran Ciya Kurd said the Kurds have not been informed of any change in the U.S. position and were in the dark about the latest comments by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton and what they indicated.

“We have not been formally or directly notified, all what we heard were media statements,” he said.

Bolton, on a visit to Israel Sunday, said U.S. troops will not leave northeastern Syria until IS militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected. The comments appeared to put the brakes on a withdrawal abruptly announced by Trump last month and initially expected to be completed within weeks.

While Bolton said there is now no timetable, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to withdrawing U.S. troops, though the president said “I never said we’re doing it that quickly” and added that there will not be a total pullout “until ISIS is gone.”

Trump had said in his Dec. 19 withdrawal announcement that U.S. forces “have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

The back and forth is troubling for the Kurds, who have been America’s only partners on the ground in Syria in the fight against IS. Trump’s decision last month drew widespread criticism from allies, led to the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and raised fears over clearing the way for a Turkish assault on the Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

Bolton arrived in Turkey on Monday, accompanied by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, for talks with government officials.

Bolton said the U.S. wants its Kurdish allies in Syria protected from any planned Turkish offensive — a warning to be delivered to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ciya Kurd said Bolton, through his comments, acknowledged that Turkey was killing the Kurds and that he wants guarantees that this would not happen.

“Turkey constitutes a bigger threat to Kurdish existence than Daesh and all international terrorist organizations,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Nawaf Khalil, who heads the Europe-based Center for Kurdish Studies said “President Trump’s statement regarding withdrawal of troops led to confusion and mistrust of the American side.”

He added that Bolton’s statement “came to fix what should not have been said.”

Shahoz Hasan, the co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the largest and most powerful in northern Syria, told the AP that he would not comment until U.S. officials conclude their meetings in Turkey.

In northern Syria, the Kurdish-led U.S.-backed force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces pressed on in their fight against Islamic State militants in their last holdouts in eastern Syria. Civilians continued to flee the area around the town of Hajin near the border with Iraq.

In a sign of the lingering threat still posed by the extremist group, IS militants staged an attack in the northern city of Raqqa, killing a civilian and wounding several SDF fighters.

The SDF said in a statement that during Monday’s attack an IS fighter blew himself up near an SDF checkpoint.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the suicide attacker first opened fire at an SDF force outside a local department before going inside and blowing himself up, killing five, including four civilians, and wounding eight.

SDF fighters captured Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the extremists, in October 2017. Since then IS sleeper cells have occasionally carried out attacks in the city.

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