Rebuffing Trump, Syrian Kurds say IS not yet defeated

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces warn pullout of American troops could destabilize region; France, Britain say more work to be done

A file photo taken on April 25, 2017, shows a US military officer (R) speaking with a fighter from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) at the site of Turkish airstrikes near the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, known as al-Malikiyah in Arabic. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
A file photo taken on April 25, 2017, shows a US military officer (R) speaking with a fighter from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) at the site of Turkish airstrikes near the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, known as al-Malikiyah in Arabic. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

A Kurdish-led US-backed group in Syria has rejected US President Donald Trump’s claim that the Islamic State jihadist organization has been defeated and said the withdrawal of American troops would lead to a resurgence of the extremist group.

The group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces said in a statement that a premature US troop pullout would have dangerous repercussions and a destabilizing effect on the region.

It said Thursday that “the war against Islamic State has not ended and the group has not been defeated.” It was the group’s first response to Trump’s surprise announcement Wednesday that he would be withdrawing all American forces from Syria.

The decision has rattled Washington’s Kurdish allies, who are its most reliable partner in Syria and among the most effective ground forces battling the IS group.

This frame grab from video released October 17, 2017 and provided by Hawar News Agency, a Syrian Kurdish activist-run media group, shows fighters from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) celebrating their victory in Raqqa, Syria. (Hawar News Agency via AP)

Turkey views the People’s Protection units, or YPG, the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, as a terrorist group and an extension of the insurgency within its borders. US support for the group has strained ties between the two NATO allies.

Ahead of an expected offensive by Turkey on areas held by the Kurds in Syria, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted saying by Reuters on Thursday that Kurdish fighters “will be buried in their ditches when the time comes.”

In another rebuff to Trump, French government officials said Thursday France will maintain its participation in the coalition fighting IS forces in Syria despite the US withdrawal.

Syrians wave the national flag and wave portraits of President Bashar al-Assad as they gather at the Umayyad Square in Damascus on April 14, 2018, to condemn the strikes carried out by the United States, Britain and France against the Syrian regime. (AFP PHOTO / LOUAI BESHARA)

“For now of course we remain in Syria,” France’s European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said on CNews television, adding “the fight against terrorism is not over.”

“It’s true that the coalition has made significant progress in Syria, but this fight continues, and we will continue it,” she said.

France has stationed fighter jets in Jordan and artillery along the Syrian border in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition, as well as an undisclosed number of special forces on the ground.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said on Twitter Thursday that the group “has not been wiped off the map, nor have its roots.”

“We must definitively defeat the last pockets of this terrorist organization,” she said.

Illustrative photo of a member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces removing an Islamic State flag in the town of Tabqa. (AFP Photo/Delil Souleiman)

Britain meanwhile insisted “much remains to be done” in fighting IS.

“The global coalition against Daesh has made huge progress,” said a government statement issued late Wednesday, referring to Islamic State.

“Since military operations began, the coalition and its partners in Syria and Iraq have recaptured the vast majority of Daesh territory and important advances have been made in recent days in the last area of eastern Syria which Daesh has occupied.

“But much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose. Even without territory, Daesh will remain a threat.”

Junior defense minister Tobias Ellwood was more blunt, retweeting a message from Trump that the jihadists had been defeated in Syria with the words: “I strongly disagree.

“It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.”

Currently, about 2,000 US forces are in Syria, most of them on a train-and-advise mission to support local forces fighting IS.

The Pentagon refused to say what effect the troop withdrawal would have on air operations in Syria that have been ongoing since late 2014.

In this file from November 4, 2018, US forces patrol the Kurdish-held town of Al-Darbasiyah in northeastern Syria. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Britain takes part in the airstrikes as part of an international coalition.

The statement from London said: “We remain committed to the global coalition and the campaign to deny Daesh territory and ensure its enduring defeat, working alongside our critical regional partners in Syria and beyond.

“As the situation on the ground develops, we will continue to discuss how we achieve these aims with our coalition partners, including the US.”

The Times newspaper on Thursday reported that Britain had not been informed of the decision before Trump announced it.

The US move is widely seen as an abandonment of a loyal ally, one that could prompt Turkey to launch a fresh offensive against the Kurds or drive the Kurds into a new alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran and Russia.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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