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Syrian Democratic Council leaders set for Paris talks on US withdrawal

SDC leaders Riad Darar and Ilham Ahmed will also discuss Turkey's threats to launch a military operation in Syria against the YPG

Two top political leaders of the Syrian Kurd-led alliance battling Islamic State are to visit France on Friday for talks on the planned U.S. military withdrawal from Syria, an alliance representative said.

Riad Darar, the Arab co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the U.S.-led Coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and Ilham Ahmed, the Kurdish co-chair of the SDC Executive Council, are “expected in Paris,” said Khaled Issa, a representative of the northern Syria administration based in the city.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s office confirmed that representatives would hold talks, though it was not immediately known at what level. In March, Macron received a delegation from northern Syria at the Elysée Palace and he assured them of French support.

Issa said the discussions will focus on President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and Turkish threats to intervene militarily against the People Protection Units (YPG), the predominantly Kurdish militia that is a key component of the SDF alliance.

Talks on ending the war in Syria are also on the agenda, Issa said.

France “shares the concern of the Kurdish-Arab forces”, a aide to Macron said, referring to the possible Turkish offensive.

On December 15, the European Union’s chief diplomat also expressed concern about a potential Turkish military operation. Federica Mogherini said the E.U. expects Turkey to refrain from unilateral action.

Turkish troops in Hatay province near the Syrian border
Turkish troops gather in Hassa, Hatay province, near the border, as part of Operation Olive Branch, Turkey’s military offensive against the Kurd-controlled Efrin canton in Syria, January 21, 2018. Image: Bulent Kilic/AFP

Turkish threats against northern Syria

New administrative arrangements in areas of northern Syria under SDF control were formalized by the SDC in 2016 with the creation of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, but Turkey refuses to recognise the territory on its border.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday again said he was determined to root out YPG fighters from northern Syria, if the U.S. failed to convince them to withdraw of their own accord.

The YPG is considered by the Turkish government to be inextricably linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, and is designated as a terror group by Turkey and its Western allies.

But the YPG is not a proscribed organization in the United Kingdom, United States or European Union, and it is a key component of the Coalition-backed SDF alliance of Arabs, Christians and Kurds which is waging the ground campaign against ISIS in Syria.

“Erdogan is going to do everything possible to occupy this region, putting our population in danger but also the security of Europe,” Khaled Issa said.

Turkey has carried out two military incursions into northern Syria.

Earlier this year, Turkish military forces and Syrian opposition fighters captured the Efrin region from the YPG after a two-month air and ground offensive called Operation Olive Branch. There was no ISIS presence in Efrin.

In 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield to capture ISIS-held territory west of the Euphrates and prevent the SDF from expanding territory it had captured from the jihadists around Manbij, creating a tense front line near the city.

The SDF said on Thursday that it will keep fighting ISIS in Syria unless it comes under Turkish attack, after earlier saying that the U.S. pullout would “have a negative impact on the counterterrorism campaign” and allow ISIS to regroup and launch a counterattack.

Backed by Coalition airstrikes, SDF fighters last week seized Hajin, the largest village in the last pocket of territory still controlled by ISIS in eastern Syria. Hundreds of die-hard ISIS fighters, however, have regrouped in Sousa and Al-Shaafa, the last two hubs in the ever-shrinking rump of the group’s once sprawling “caliphate.”

France wants clarifications on US withdrawal from Syria

Also on Thursday, the Pentagon said the U.S. will continue its air campaign against ISIS in Syria as long as American troops are on the ground, but will not “speculate on future operations”

The U.K. and France have indicated they will continue counter-ISIS operations in Syria.

Earlier on Thursday, the French foreign ministry said that “France will be careful to ensure the security of all the U.S. partners, including the Syrian Democratic Forces. The protection of the populations of the northeastern Syria and the stability of this zone must be taken into account by the United States to avoid any new humanitarian drama and any return of the terrorists.”

France wants “clarifications” from Washington on how and when U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Syria, Macron’s aide said.

The future of the Global Coalition Against ISIS can only be decided once “we know what the calendar and terms” of the withdrawal is, the aide added.

Macron telephoned Trump on Tuesday after hearing he was about to announce the withdrawal, the advisor said.

He urged him “not to give up”, adding that the fight against Islamic State was not over and that he needed to take into account “the consequences on our partners on the ground”.

France will ‘continue’ anti-ISIS operations in Syria despite US pullout

With reporting from AFP

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