AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Angry over the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, residents of a Kurdish-dominated city pelted departing American military vehicles with potatoes Monday as they drove through. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said U.S. troops will stay in eastern Syria to protect Kurdish-held oil fields for at least the coming weeks and he was discussing options to keep them there.
A video by the Kurdish news agency showed a convoy of armored vehicles driving through the northeastern city of Qamishli. People in the street hurled potatoes at the vehicles, shouting, “No America,” and “America liar,” in English.
“Like rats, America is running away,” one man shouted in Arabic. Another shouted obscenities and talked of babies in Kurdish-held areas who have died in the Turkish offensive.
The scene encapsulated the Kurds’ feelings of betrayal and added a new indignity to an American withdrawal that has been rushed and saw several close brushes with Turkish-backed forces. The Kurds were stunned when President Donald Trump two weeks ago abruptly decided to pull U.S. troops out of border areas, abandoning their allied Kurdish-backed fighters ahead of Turkey’s invasion. After the assault began Oct. 9, Trump ordered a general withdrawal from Syria.
At another location, near the town of Tal Tamr, a group of protesters raised banners to departing US troops late Sunday, according to an Associated Press video.
One man blocked the way of a U.S. van with a poster reading: “Thanks for US people, but Trump betrayed us.”
The Kurdish-led force was a key ally of the United States in the long and bloody fight that eventually brought down the Islamic State group’s rule over northeast and eastern Syria. Abandoned by U.S. forces, the Kurds agreed to a cease-fire deal brokered by Washington that requires them to leave a section of the border, handing it over to Turkish-backed forces.
Esper said he is discussing an option that would keep a small residual U.S. military force to secure oil fields located in eastern Syria and continue the fight against Islamic State militants.
Speaking during a visit to Kabul, he said he has not made a final decision on that option and has not yet presented it to Trump. He underscored the importance of protecting the oil fields from IS to ensure the militants don’t profit from them
He said American troops who are working with Kurdish-led forces to guard the oil fields are still in place. The withdrawal could take weeks, he said, and troops around the town of Kobani on the border with Turkey are the first leaving.
As part of the cease-fire deal, Kurdish forces on Sunday pulled back from the border town of Ras al-Ayn on Sunday, paving the way for Turkish troops deployment in the area. Under the deal, the Kurds are to withdraw from a stretch of territory 120 kilometers (75 miles) along the border and 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep. Qamishli is east of that area.
A senior Kurdish official, Redur Khalil, said Monday his forces are complying with agreement and are preparing to complete the withdrawal. He called for an international mechanism to protect Kurdish civilians who want to stay in their towns after Kurdish-led fighters leave.
Most Kurdish civilians have fled Ras al-Ayn, fearing killings or repression by Turkish-backed forces, and any still in the territory that the Kurdish fighters are leaving are likely to do the same.
More than 176,000 people have been driven from their homes in the violence. About 70,000 of those are children, the international aid group Save the Children said Monday. It said thousands are taking refuge in schools and abandoned buildings without electricity or in open fields in Kurdish-run areas around northeast Syria.
“Thousands of children and their families have once again had to leave everything they own to flee conflict and take shelter in unhygienic conditions without the basic necessities,” said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director.
Khalil said Turkey continues to violate the cease-fire, accusing its troops of shelling a village at dawn and seeking to carry out military operations. He criticized the U.S. as guarantor of the cease-fire deal, saying it has not forced Turkey to adhere to it.
“The American guarantor remains weak in its position in deterring the Turkish violations,” he said.
On Monday, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, accused the Kurdish-led forces of 30 live fire violations of the four-day-old truce, including an attack that killed one Turkish soldier. He said Turkey retaliated against these attacks.
Cavusoglu renewed warnings that his country will resume its military offensive in northeast Syria if Kurdish fighters don’t vacate the region before the cease-fire is set to end Tuesday evening.
“If they don’t withdraw, our operation will re-start,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said speaking in Istanbul. He added, however, that Kurdish fighters were complying with the deal and withdrawing.
Turkey says it wants to return Syrian refugees to the areas evacuated. A crucial meeting between Turkish and Russian leaders is expected to further address arrangements along the Syria-Turkish border.
Baldor reported from Kabul. AP correspondents Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.