ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The administration of Tabqa has received assurances that the US would maintain a presence in northeastern Syria, where the town and its strategic dam are located, an official stated on Tuesday.
Tabqa is both the name of the town and the strategic Tabqa Dam, the largest in the country, which was captured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in May 2017.
Sheikh Hamad al-Faraj, co-chairman of Tabqa’s legislative council, speaking to Kurdistan 24, claimed the Tabqa administration had met with “US officials” who “assured us that they would stay.”
“So that's a good sign,” al-Faraj said. “After we eradicate ISIS, we need to worry about internal security, we need a lot of training and help.”
Indeed, as recently as Sunday, ISIS launched an attack targeting tribal leaders and the SDF in the Jadeedat al-Khabur village, in the countryside of Raqqa, killing four.
The official also noted that Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have “shown to be eager” in wanting to take control of the town, but that the people would rather the Kurdish-led SDF and the US stay.
Al-Faraj is not only a head of the legislative council, but also the leader of the al-Wilde tribe, one of, if not the biggest tribe in Tabqa, which opposes the return of the Syrian government to the town.
Engineers of the Syrian government-linked Euphrates Dam Company currently work at the Tabqa Dam as maintenance crew since July 2018, but there is no Syrian government or Syrian military presence in Tabqa.
Since US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was announced, ‘enemies’ such as Turkey and Damascus have been emboldened, Al-Faraj affirmed.
“The population has multiplied [in Tabqa]. We have to reassure displaced people who flee regime-held territories to our area, that the US is going to stay and will enforce stability.”
Syrian government have begun mobilizing troops on the western side of the river, including Iranian-backed militants. “They started to run propaganda campaigns on social media that the regime is coming back, to scare people,” al-Faraj asserted.
“From the day Trump made his announcement to withdraw, the regime started to prepare to come back to the area, and they started trying to motivate people who live here in the area,” al-Faraj explained.
Civilians in Tabqa have feared a possible US withdrawal, going as far as protesting the return of the Syrian regime. “Spontaneous demonstrations erupted in January and were carried out against the regime. As an administration, we have allowed to hold further protests, if they are registered beforehand,” the official continued.
The concerns were also sparked by the start of discussions between the local Kurdish-backed administration and Russia over a possible deal with Damascus, should the US would withdraw, as a protective measure against a potential Turkish attack.
“There is a lot of fear, maybe they [regime] will come and the SDF will leave, and all of us will end be devastated,” Mohammed Ali, a defense official with the Tabqa administration, told Kurdistan 24.
“People were terrified, some were packing their bags and wanted to leave.” Those fears are especially present among those who opposed Assad and joined or supported the local administration and defense forces of Tabqa once it was liberated from the Islamic State.
“If the regime comes, they will kill them. They were with the revolution and no one will stay here,” the defense official said.
Despite the February announcement that the US would maintain 200 troops in Syria, after the initial withdrawal caused panic Syria would relive another crisis, al-Faraj argued there is a strong need to deploy international observers at the border.
“If the airspace is controlled by the US, if a no-fly zone is announced, our area would be a real safe haven,” he affirmed, rejecting the proposed safe zone agreement with Turkey. “We would not accept Turkey come to these areas at all. It would be an occupation, not a safe zone.”
“The United States is telling everyone who will listen that there is a big plan in place to use northern and eastern Syria to punish Assad,” Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East security analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, told Kurdistan 24.
“It is true and part of the plan to keep the local Arabs on the American team.”
Editing by Nadia Riva