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ISIS Stands To Gain From U.S. Decision To Move Forces In Syria


Turkey's military forces are positioned to move across the border into northern Syria - this after President Trump announced earlier this week that the U.S. would move its troops out of the area. Pentagon officials say they were blindsided by that decision. Kurds in Syria say it was a, quote, "stab in the back." Some of Trump's staunchest supporters call the move a grave mistake. They're worried Turkey will attack the very Kurdish forces who have been helping the U.S. fight ISIS.

NPR's national security correspondent Hannah Allam is here to talk about how the Islamic State stands to gain as this showdown unfolds. Hi, Hannah.


MARTIN: So this withdrawal of U.S. troops, in effect, cleared the way for a Turkish offensive against the Kurds. Does ISIS benefit from that, and how?

ALLAM: It certainly could. We're talking about eastern Syria, an area that was crucial to ISIS. Raqqa is there. It was the capital of the so-called caliphate. It's the place where we saw a lot of the atrocities ISIS is known for - the public beheadings, the people being stoned to death. And territorially, the caliphate's gone, but that took a bloody battle. And the ones who did a lot of the dirty work there were Kurdish fighters with the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces. They lost around 12,000 fighters. They're the ones holding that recaptured territory. They're the ones guarding thousands of ISIS prisoners...


ALLAM: ...And they're the ones in charge of a detention camp packed with families of ISIS fighters. So the Syrian Kurds that are kind of holding the line there, they said they can't do all of that and confront Turkey.

MARTIN: We are talking about a small contingent of U.S. troops who the president wants to move out of the border, right?

ALLAM: That's...

MARTIN: What kind of difference did they really make there?

ALLAM: Well, eastern Syria's not under extremist rule. But it's still a fragile place. It's a fragile situation. ISIS itself is undergoing a shift. It lost its land. It's moving back to its insurgent roots. And so, yeah, any presence, any U.S. presence there is a deterrent both to - you know, to ISIS, but also to Turkey. And overnight, even, there were reports of possible ISIS attacks in Raqqa. So, yes, again, the caliphate's gone, but ISIS isn't vanquished.

I spoke with Hassan Hassan. He's from this part of eastern Syria. And he's with the Center for Global Policy in Washington. He warns that the U.S. still needs the Syrian Kurds and that this is not the moment to break that partnership.

HASSAN HASSAN: You lose the most effective force against ISIS. Even if this force is replaced by another force, just the mere change of hands will create security gaps for ISIS to exploit, rebuild its influence and rise again in those areas.

MARTIN: Interesting. And as you mentioned earlier, there is this conflict or tension about priorities, right? Yesterday we spoke with the commander of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. His name is General Mazloum Kobani Abdi. And here's what he said.


MAZLOUM KOBANI ABDI: (Through interpreter) So in case of the American withdrawal from the border areas and invasion started - that jump-start their incursion, for sure one priority for us, it will be to protect our areas and our families. And we will not be focusing on ISIS like we focused before.

MARTIN: The general speaking through a translator there in Syria. I mean, that's a pretty clear statement of their priorities. And they're not necessarily in line with U.S. interests, are they?

ALLAM: That's right. And, I mean, the Kurdish forces have always been clear that their No. 1 concern is not ISIS, but protecting their territory from Turkey. So if they're moving into a defensive position, who's going to watch the ISIS prisoners, guard the detention camp?

So this is still fluid. And it's still playing out. But even with the unknowns, we do know that the U.S. needs partners to hold these gains on the ground. And now the Kurdish fighters are seen as a cautionary tale because getting sold out doesn't exactly boost recruitment.

MARTIN: NPR's national security correspondent Hannah Allam. Thank you so much.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.