As war map shifts once more, fleeing Syrians face tough choices

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Driven from his hometown in northeast Syria as bombs rained down in a Turkish assault, a Kurdish father worried for his toddler son, who was ill, and accused America of betraying the Kurds in the region.

Agid Meshmesh escaped from the mainly Kurdish border town of Kobani on Monday after he couldn't get food or diapers for his son, who was battling a severe infection.

"Life stopped; the doctors all fled," Meshmesh, 29, told Reuters by phone from the nearby town of Manbij, where he was staying with his wife and son. "We're fleeing, but we don't know where to go."

He called the Turkish military move on the region "a catastrophe," and he criticized Washington for abandoning Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, leaving the region at the mercy of Turkish troops and seeking help from Syria and Russia.

His hometown, Kobani, was the birthplace of a U.S.-Kurdish military alliance some five years ago, when Washington intervened with air strikes to help Kurdish fighters turn the tide against Islamic State. That made the U.S. pullout even more bitter.

"The Americans couldn't do a thing for us," he said. "It was an American betrayal of northeast Syria and the Kurdish people.... They left us between the jaws of a pincer."

Caught in the crossfire, Meshmesh and his family are waiting, helplessly, to see how the shifting web of rivalries and alliances plays out in the tangled battlefield of northeastern Syria, which the Kurdish YPG militia controls.

The past week has redrawn the map of Syria yet again after more than eight years of war. Washington's move to pull out of the region, opening the way for Ankara's offensive, left Kurdish forces scrambling for protection. So the Kurds invited in the Syrian army and its ally Russia.

Meshmesh said he would rather have Syrian troops take his hometown than see it fall to Turkish forces -- which he fears would make him a target for his Kurdish ethnicity. Turkey launched the operation in the region to target the YPG, which it brands a threat to Turkey.

The ethnically mixed northeast region is home to up to 2 million people, including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and others, many of them uprooted from other parts of Syria.

The Syrian army’s deployment raises questions about the fate of a region where the YPG and its local allies have carved out self-rule for years.

Making matters even more fraught, the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) announced Tuesday that it had suspended most of its activities in the region and evacuated all its international staff.

Meshmesh said the new reality on the ground could pose a threat for people who had evaded mandatory military service or Kurdish activists who are wanted by the government.

For him, that paled in comparison to the Turkish incursion. "It is an existential problem," he said.

"I'm proud to be Syrian," he said. "I prefer the Syrian government ... even if it may weaken the rights and dreams that were built in the past eight years."

But with territory shifting hands at lightning speed and a new exodus unfolding, Syrians must weigh up tough choices over where to seek shelter.

In the city of Raqqa farther south, a young Syrian Arab man hid in his home Tuesday, frantically following the news, worried about the prospect of Syrian government forces coming back.

"I'm living in a state of terror. I can't sleep at night," said the opposition activist, who is in his 20s and didn't want to give his name because he is afraid of retribution. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

He has remained in his city since early in the war even as its rulers shifted from rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad's rule to Islamic State militants and then to Kurdish fighters. But now he fears a return of state rule because of his past work with local outlets and activists opposed to Assad.

Syrian Kurdish leaders have said the deal with Damascus involves only army troops deploying at the border, and there has been no official comment from the Syrian government.

But the activist and a second Raqqa resident said they still worried that Kurdish forces would cut a deal with Damascus and hand over Raqqa.

Some in the city who support Damascus rallied on Monday, calling for a return of its rule and carrying photos of Assad for the first time in years, he said.

If it comes to it, his siblings, like many others, would have no problem staying in Raqqa, so he would have to find a way out alone, he said.

He hopes to get smuggled into territory in the north under the control of mainly Sunni Arab Syrian rebels funded and trained by Turkey, a swathe of Syria where Turkish forces are stationed. For now, though, he is waiting to see what happens.

The activist said he had heard from relatives in the north that some rebels had been looting and acting inappropriately but he would feel safer there than under state rule.

"Listen, nobody is good -- they're all criminals," he said. "But some are easier than others."

(Editing by Kari Howard)

10/15/2019 21:14

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