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Syrian Kurds fleeing the Turkish incursion in northeast Syria line up for a meal distribution at Bardarash refugee camp in Northern Iraq.

Andrea DiCenzo/The Globe and Mail

There were no Kurds at the table Tuesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan drew up a new security arrangement that will govern the Kurdish-inhabited region south of the Turkey-Syria border. Instead, Syria’s Kurds voted with their feet the following day by continuing to flee a homeland they no longer see a future in.

Nineteen busloads arrived Wednesday afternoon in this suddenly heaving refugee camp in an area known as Iraqi Kurdistan, each carrying another 30 refugees. The new arrivals pushed the population of Bardarash camp – which was empty before Turkey launched a military operation three weeks ago – to more than 8,000, 75 per cent of whom were women and children.

Another 40 buses were expected to arrive in the camp after nightfall, and the regional government says it is bracing for as many as 250,000 arrivals if a Turkish military offensive – currently on hold – resumes with its previous force.

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The new refugees had heard little about the details of the pact drawn up by Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan during their summit meeting in the Russian resort of Sochi. They were acting instead on gut instinct: The American soldiers who had been stationed in the Kurdish regions of Syria were abruptly withdrawn after a snap decision by U.S. President Donald Trump.

The new refugees had heard little about the details of the pact drawn up by Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan. They were acting on gut instinct.

Andrea DiCenzo/The Globe and Mail

TURKEY'S INCURSION IN NORTHEASTERN SYRIA

Turkey aims to establish a “safe zone” along most of its southern border that runs roughly 30 kilometres into Syria so that it can settle millions of Syrian refugees there. Under its Operation Peace Spring, Turkey struck a deal with Moscow to clear the area of Kurdish YPG militia, who were allies of the U.S. but are considered a "terrorist" group by Ankara.

Areas of control

As of Oct. 17

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish forces

Pro-government forces

Opposition forces

Turkey’s plans

Planned 10 km patrol zone for Turkish and Russian forces beginning Oct. 28

Planned “safe zone”

TURKEY

Ras al-Ain

Kobani

Manbij

Tel Abyad

Mosul

Al-Hasakah

Aleppo

Raqqa

Deir

al-Zor

Bardarash

refugee

camp

Latakia

Hama

SYRIA

Homs

LEBANON

Damascus

IRAQ

JORDAN

0

100

Golan Heights

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

TURKEY'S INCURSION IN NORTHEASTERN SYRIA

Turkey aims to establish a “safe zone” along most of its southern border that runs roughly 30 kilometres into Syria so that it can settle millions of Syrian refugees there. Under its Operation Peace Spring, Turkey struck a deal with Moscow to clear the area of Kurdish YPG militia, who were allies of the U.S. but are considered a "terrorist" group by Ankara.

Areas of control

As of Oct. 17

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish forces

Pro-government forces

Opposition forces

Turkey’s plans

Planned 10 km patrol zone for Turkish and Russian forces beginning Oct. 28

Planned “safe zone”

TURKEY

Ras al-Ain

Kobani

Manbij

Tel Abyad

Mosul

Al-Hasakah

Aleppo

Raqqa

Deir

al-Zor

Bardarash

refugee

camp

Latakia

Hama

SYRIA

Homs

LEBANON

Damascus

IRAQ

JORDAN

0

100

Golan Heights

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

TURKEY'S INCURSION IN NORTHEASTERN SYRIA

Turkey aims to establish a “safe zone” along most of its southern border that runs roughly 30 kilometres into Syria so that it can settle millions of Syrian refugees there. Under its Operation Peace Spring, Turkey struck a deal with Moscow to clear the area of Kurdish YPG militia, who were allies of the U.S. but are considered a "terrorist" group by Ankara.

Areas of control (as of Oct. 17)

Turkey’s plans

Planned 10 km patrol zone for Turkish and Russian forces beginning Oct. 28

Kurdish forces and allies

Turkish forces

Pro-government forces

Opposition forces

Planned “safe zone”

TURKEY

Ras al-Ain

Kobani

Manbij

Tel Abyad

Mosul

Al-Hasakah

Aleppo

Bardarash

refugee

camp

Raqqa

Deir

al-Zor

Latakia

Hama

SYRIA

Homs

LEBANON

IRAQ

Damascus

JORDAN

Golan Heights

0

100

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

In that American-created vacuum, Syria’s Kurds expect only the worst from Mr. Erdogan, who initiated the attack to clear the region of the Kurdish YPG militia – whom he calls “terrorists” because of activities aimed at establishing their own territory in Turkey’s own Kurdish region – and Mr. Putin, who has allied his forces with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The situation is bad. Everybody is leaving,” said Raed Mohammed Sayid, a 32-year-old who arrived on one of the 19 buses along with his wife and five children. “I don’t blame the Americans, but it was only safe when they were there.”

Like nearly all of the refugees arriving in Bardarash, Mr. Sayid said he had paid smugglers US$1,000 – an enormous sum for a casual labourer – to get he and his family out of a part of Syria that Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Trump insist on calling a “safe zone.”

Mr. Assad’s forces have also returned to Eastern Syria after withdrawing early in the country’s eight-year-old civil war, invited back earlier this month by the YPG in hopes of discouraging a deeper Turkish invasion. The combination of the Turkish offensive and the return of the regime’s forces – including its feared secret police – have brought a crashing end to the brief period of U.S.-shielded autonomy for Syria’s Kurds, who had few rights under Mr. al-Assad’s rule.

The new arrivals pushed the population of Bardarash camp to more than 8,000, 75 per cent of whom were women and children.

Andrea DiCenzo/The Globe and Mail

Many here talk of an American betrayal that set the chaotic events in motion. YPG fighters had formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia that allied with the U.S., and acted as its primary ground force, in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State earlier this year. Some 11,000 Kurdish fighters died in the street-by-street battles to retake Raqqa and other cities that had fallen under control of the extremist group.

That alliance appeared to have been forgotten during an Oct. 6 phone call between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Trump, after which the U.S. President ordered the withdrawal of the 1,000 special-forces troops stationed in Syria, and signalled his support for the Turkish invasion.

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“Safe Zone created!” Mr. Trump wrote Wednesday on his Twitter account, referring to the 30-kilometre-deep area on the Syrian side of the Turkish border that Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan agreed should be kept free of Turkish fighters. “Ceasefire has held and combat missions have ended. Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us.”

But while Mr. Erdogan’s military has continued to pause its offensive to see if the YPG fighters withdraw according to the Sochi formula, Syria’s Kurds clearly feel anything but safe.

A majority of the refugees interviewed by The Globe and Mail said they were fleeing because they feel the Turkish assault could resume at any moment. A significant minority, however, were young men who said they feared being conscripted into Mr. al-Assad’s army if the regime took back control.

While Turkish President Erdogan’s military has continued to pause its offensive to see if the YPG fighters withdraw according to the Sochi formula, Syria’s Kurds clearly feel anything but safe.

Andrea DiCenzo/The Globe and Mail

“If I go back to Syria, the police will catch me and I will have to do military service,” said Hamid Malla, a 19-year-old who was completing his final year of high school before Mr. Trump green-lighted the Turkish assault in the call with Mr. Erdogan. He fled with only a backpack stuffed with a sweater, some plastic bottles of water, and a hand-drawn portrait of his girlfriend, Malva, who had remained behind in Syria with her family.

Turkey and Russia began on Wednesday to implement the deal struck in Sochi, with Russian and Syrian troops arriving to begin patrolling the border zone.

Under the terms of the deal, Russian and Syrian forces have five days to persuade the YPG to leave the area, after which the Sochi pact says the zone would be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces. If the YPG refuses to withdraw, the Turkish offensive will resume.

Russia said Wednesday that the Americans had turned their backs on the Kurds. “The United States has been the Kurds’ closest ally in recent years. [But] in the end, it abandoned the Kurds and, in essence, betrayed them,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow. He added that if the Kurdish fighters didn’t leave on time, they would be “steamrolled” by the Turkish military.

Russia said Wednesday that the Americans had turned their backs on the Kurds.

Andrea DiCenzo/The Globe and Mail

Kurdish analysts say the deal amounts to ethnic cleansing of the 30-kilometre zone, since Kurds are being forced to leave an area that the Sochi agreement says will later be populated with some of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees – most of whom are Arabs – currently living in Turkey.

“Even if Erdogan does not have the intention to pursue demographic change, Kurds will leave this area because they will not feel safe. When you fear the security forces, you leave,” said Mera Bakr, a political analyst in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq.

Mr. Bakr said the Kurds saw no friends among Mr. Putin, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. al-Assad, which is why General Mazloum Abdi, the commander-in-chief of the SDF, continued even on Wednesday to praise Mr. Trump on Twitter for his “great efforts” in bringing about a recent ceasefire – hoping to remind the U.S. of its previous alliance with the group.

But it was unclear Wednesday whether and when the YPG would start to withdraw. “The question is what other option do they have? If they don’t withdraw, they’re fighting Russia, they’re fighting Assad, they’re fighting Turkey,” Mr. Bakr said. “If they fight, they will lose.”

Many of the refugees also seemed to accept that their hopes for a U.S.-protected safe zone in Syria – akin to the one that Iraq’s Kurds have enjoyed since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein – have now been dashed. “We don’t care who takes over now,” said Zainab Jalal Ali, a 25-year-old who fled to Bardarash a week ago with two of her friends. “As long as it’s safe and there’s no war.”

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Kurdish analysts say the deal amounts to ethnic cleansing of the 30-kilometre zone the Syrian Kurds had inhabited.

Andrea DiCenzo/The Globe and Mail

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