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Syrian Kurds 'Gravely Concerned' About US Exit

FILE - The remains of buildings line a street that was damaged the previous summer during fighting between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria, April 5, 2018.
FILE - The remains of buildings line a street that was damaged the previous summer during fighting between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria, April 5, 2018.

Some Syrian Kurdish officials and residents voiced concerns Wednesday that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, announced earlier in the day by the White House, could affect the war on the Islamic State terror group and create yet another conflict in the war-torn country.

The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria, in areas under the control of Kurdish forces in the country. The cooperation has been instrumental in the fight against IS.

U.S. troops, made up of mostly special operations forces, have been working closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated alliance that has been an effective force in the war on IS.

An SDF official who requested anonymity told VOA that the U.S. statement surprised the alliance.

"Even U.S. officials working with us inside Syria were surprised by this. Unfortunately, this will empower Iran and increase its influence in Syria and beyond. And thus it will also weaken pro-American actors in Syria and in the region, including Turkey," the official said in a phone interview.

Empowering Assad

Ibrahim Biro, an official with the Kurdish National Council, an opposition group in Syria, said the U.S. move would most likely empower the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We were hoping that the U.S. presence would contribute to finding a political settlement in Syria," Biro told VOA. "But if the Americans are leaving, then al-Assad forces are likely to take full control of our region."

Since 2012, when Syrian regime troops withdrew to focus on fighting rebels elsewhere, Syrian Kurdish forces have been in control of areas in the northern and northeastern parts of the country.

Residents in northeast Syria expressed concern that an American withdrawal might result in an increased instability in the country and the region.

"There was a genuine thinking among people that the U.S. presence was a safety valve that prevented catastrophic wars in our region," said Sherin Ibrahim, a journalist at Arta FM, a radio station that broadcasts to northeastern Syria.

"But after the decision was made, we are now in a state of shock and gravely concerned about what could happen next," she told VOA.

Ibrahim added that "people in northeast Syria really hope that the U.S. administration could reverse its decision to withdraw from Syria. Otherwise, a humanitarian disaster would be inevitable."

WATCH: Civilians in N. Syria Say US Troop Exit Undermines Stability

Civilians in N. Syria Say US Troop Exit Undermines Stability
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In announcing the U.S. withdrawal, President Donald Trump said the U.S. had defeated IS in Syria.

"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," he said in a tweet, using an acronym for the militant group.

But local officials and analysts in the region said the war on IS was not over and that the terror group still threatened parts of Syria.

"The decision will reflect on the fight against IS," said Amjad Othman, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF.

IS "has not been defeated entirely. But regardless of that, the phase after [IS] is even more critical to ensure stability. So the timing of this move is not good at all," he told VOA in a phone interview.

"This is a dangerous move," said Radwan Badini, a professor of journalism at Salahaddin University in Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. "The war on [IS] is far from over. But a U.S. withdrawal from eastern Syria would certainly leave the door open on all options."

Fears of retaliation

Badini told VOA that northeastern Syria is "an ethnically diverse region with many people still sympathizing with [IS]. So the U.S. move to pull out from Syria could inspire some people to retaliate against others who cooperated with the Americans in the fight against [IS]."

Fighting continues in eastern Syria as SDF fighters are trying to advance against IS in its last major stronghold in the country.

Local military officials said the operation would continue until IS militants had been pushed out from the town of Hajin and several nearby villages, including Sosa, Baghouz and Shifa'a in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

The development came days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his plans for a new military offensive against the U.S.-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria.

Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a bloody war with the Turkish military for three decades. Both Ankara and Washington consider the PKK a terrorist organization.

WATCH: Why Turkey Is Attacking the YPG

Why Turkey Is Attacking YPG
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The U.S., however, makes a distinction between the PKK and YPG, providing military support to the latter in its fight against IS. The YPG is the main element within the SDF.

"We will see how the U.S. will continue giving support [to the YPG]," said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a former Turkish military commander.

"The U.S. can still support the YPG from the air or it can make a movement against a third party's intervention from its own military bases. If [the YPG] is able to protect the security structure that the U.S. will leave behind east of the Euphrates, then the U.S. would move accordingly," he told VOA.

VOA's Kurdish and Turkish services contributed to this report.