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DAMASCUS: President Bashar al-Assad warned Syria’s Kurds on Sunday that their ally the United States would not protect them against any Turkish offensive as Washington looks to withdraw it troops.

The US is set to pull out its soldiers from Syria after allied Kurdish-led forces capture the militant Islamic State group’s last holdout in the war-torn country.

Any withdrawal risks leaving the Kurds exposed to a long threatened attack by neighbouring Turkey, which views Kurdish fighters as “terrorists”.

“We tell those groups who are betting on the Americans that the Americans will not protect you,” Assad said in a televised speech.

“The Americans do not hold you in their heart... They will put you in their pocket so you can be a bargaining chip.” Apart from fighting IS, the Kurds have largely stayed out of Syria’s civil war, working towards semi-autonomy in the northeast of the country.

The looming prospect of a US withdrawal, announced in December, has sent them scrambling to rebuild ties with the Damascus regime, but talks so far have failed to reach a compromise.

“If you don’t prepare yourselves to defend your country and resist, you will be nothing but a slave to the Ottomans,” Assad warned, using a historic term for Turks.

“No one will protect you except your state. No one will defend you except the Syrian Arab army,” he said.

Nearly eight years into a war that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions, Assad’s forces control almost two thirds of the country.

Just two areas remain beyond its control: the jihadist-held northwestern region of Idlib, and around a third of the country under control of Kurdish-led forces.

“Every inch of Syria will be liberated,” Assad said in Sunday’s speech.

US-backed Syria force says IS holding 1,000 civilians

IS militants are preventing more than 1,000 civilians from leaving a tiny area still held by the extremist group in a village in eastern Syria, a spokesman for the US-backed Syrian militia fighting the group said on Sunday.

“Regrettably, Daesh have closed all the roads,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.

SDF officials have said the extremists are hiding among civilians in a tented village and using a network of caves and tunnels. IS, which once ruled a proto-state in large parts of Syria and Iraq, is clinging to an area less than a square kilometre (square mile) in the village of Baghouz, in eastern Syria.

The extremists may include high-level commanders, and could be holding hostages among those trapped inside.

Occasional coalition air strikes and clashes continue inside the village of Baghouz. Artillery rounds were meant to clear land mines for the SDF fighters to advance. SDF commanders say the end of IS’ self-declared caliphate is near.

“We will very soon bring good news to the whole world,” Ciya Furat, an SDF commander, said at a news conference at the al-Omar Oil Field Base, miles away from Baghouz in the Deir el-Zour province.

The capture of the last pocket of territory held by IS in either Syria or Iraq would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s so-called caliphate. At the height of their power in 2014, the extremists controlled nearly a third of both countries.

But experts and US defence officials warn that the group still poses a major threat and could regroup within six months if pressure is not kept up.

Thousands of IS fighters and their families have emerged from the last bastion held by the group in the past few months. The SDF is holding around 1,000 foreign fighters in lock ups and camps in northern Syria, and their fate is a major concern, particularly as American troops prepare to withdraw from Syria.

The Kurds want their countries to take them back, and the US has called on Europeans to repatriate and put them on trial. Trump repeated that call in a tweet on Saturday.

“The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall,” Trump posted. He suggested the alternative would be that the US would be forced to release them.

“We do so much, and spend so much - Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!” he added.

Bali, the SDF spokesman, declined to comment on Trump’s statement.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2019