‘America is running away’: Syrian withdrawal turns chaotic

QAMISHLI, Syria — Heckled by Kurds who feel betrayed, a long convoy of US troops crossed into Iraq early Monday, accelerating a withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria that set the stage for the Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled land.

More than 100 US military vehicles left Syrian Kurdish territory in the early morning, according to a cameraman for the Reuters news agency who was at the border crossing.

Residents threw rocks and potatoes at the convoy as it drove through Qamishli, a major city in Kurdish-held territory. In video posted online by a local Kurdish news outlet, ANHA Hawar, men hurling potatoes at an armored vehicle shouted “No America” and “America liar,” in English.

Another group tried to block the convoy’s progress by standing in its path and holding placards of protest.

“The Americans are running away like rats,” one man could be heard shouting.

President Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from the region, which cleared the way for Turkey to attack Kurdish forces, has prompted Republicans and Democrats alike to accuse him of abandoning a US ally. A coalition of Syrian Kurdish fighters, Americans, and other foreign troops had fought the Islamic State in northeastern Syria since 2014.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed Monday that the United States was considering keeping a small force in northeastern Syria, alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, to prevent oil fields there from falling into the hands of the Islamic State.

About 1,000 American troops were in Syria before the withdrawal began this month. The New York Times reported that Trump was leaning toward leaving perhaps 200 troops there.

The withdrawal has drastically reduced American clout in Syria, ceding more control and influence to the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran. It has also raised fears of a revival of the Islamic State, the extremist group that once controlled an area in Iraq and Syria the size of Britain.

Though Trump has characterized the move as bringing troops home, Esper said Sunday that most forces would be redeployed to western Iraq, where they would continue operations against the Islamic State.

In an earlier phase of the withdrawal, coalition forces bombed their own base and arms cache in northern Syria to prevent enemies from using it.

Some Syrian Kurds see the withdrawal as a betrayal, since it has enabled Turkish-led forces to invade the area and potentially force Kurds from their ancestral homes.

“There will be ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people from Syria, and the American administration will be responsible for it,” Mazlum Kobani, whose Kurdish-led force fought the Islamic State in Syria, said Sunday in an interview with the Times.

Turkish officials say their campaign is targeting only Kobani’s militia, not Syrian Kurds at large. More than 200 Syrian civilians have died since the invasion began, while at least 20 have died in Kurdish counterattacks in southern Turkey. More than 170,000 people have been displaced, according to estimates by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Until this month, northeastern Syria had largely been under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia that had used the chaos of the eight-year civil war to establish an autonomous region that operated independently of both the central government in Damascus and Syrian Arab rebel fighters.

The US-led campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, allowed the Kurdish force to expand its territory and take over the governance of land seized from the extremists.

But the creation of an American-backed and Kurdish-held canton along the Turkish-Syrian border became a source of great anxiety for the Turkish government, which considers the Kurdish militia a threat to national security.

The militia is led by an offshoot of a Kurdish guerrilla movement that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

When it did strike, Turkey hit more widely across northeastern Syria than anticipated and was startlingly aggressive, seemingly trying to shove US soldiers out of its way.

Turkish artillery fire and Turkish-backed fighters came dangerously close to several American positions, US and Kurdish officials said.

Senior Pentagon officials said repeatedly that there was frequent communication with the Turks to avoid accidents on the ground and in the air. But one US official with knowledge of the ground said Turkey’s actions were unilateral and potentially ‘‘dangerous to coalition forces and civilians.’’ The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.


It quickly became clear Turkey was more aggressive than expected. Two days into the offensive, just after 9 p.m., Turkish artillery fired near a well-identified US observation point on a hill outside of the town of Kobani, 44 miles west of that zone.

The Turkish military said it was responding to Kurdish fire coming from a position near the post. It said it took precautions before firing to prevent harm to the Americans and ceased fire upon ‘‘receiving information’’ from the US military.

But the US official cast doubt on that, saying the American post would have seen Kurdish fire and gone on alert.

Kobani was a scene of the first major battle to drive out the Islamic State in 2014, making it a symbol of US-Kurdish cooperation against the militants. Capturing Kobani would have made it possible for Turkey to link up the territories it holds to the west with newly captured areas to the east.

The Pentagon confirmed the incident and said it warned Turkey to avoid actions that could cause defensive reaction. No troops were injured but the Americans left the outpost.

‘‘They (the Turks) created the effect they wanted. We moved out of there tonight,’’ the official told the Associated Press in a text message at the time.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.