Kurds lay blame on U.S. as clock runs down on pause in Syria fighting

“We fought for the whole world, we fought terrorism and ISIS. We fought ISIS but at the end Americans deserted us,” an elderly Kurdish refugee said.
Image: Syrian refugees
Displaced Syrians arrive at the Bardarash camp, near the city of Duhok, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.Safin Hamed / AFP - Getty Images

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By Saphora Smith, Matt Bradley and Yuka Tachibana

DUHOK, Iraq — Kurdish civilians fleeing Turkish troops in Syria angrily blamed erstwhile ally America for their misery as the clock ran down on the five-day pause in fighting that will end later Tuesday.

U.S. troops leaving northeastern Syria were pelted with potatoes and insults as they rolled through towns on their way to Iraq on Monday.

A villager standing in the road as the armored vehicles rumbled by held a handwritten sign reading: “Tell your children that the children of the Kurds were killed by the Turks and we did nothing to protect them.”

On the other side of the border in Iraq, recently arrived Kurdish refugees also focused their anger toward the United States.

At first, Mahmoud Bashar, an elderly man with thin-rimmed glasses, refused to speak to NBC News out of anger at Washington.

“It’s as if the Americans destroyed my home,” he said as he waited in line for kerosene to keep warm in dusty Bardarash refugee camp outside the Iraqi city of Duhok. “We fought for the whole world, we fought terrorism and ISIS. We fought ISIS but at the end the Americans deserted us.”

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He was among the tens of thousands of Arab and Kurdish civilians who have been forced to flee homes in the area bordering Turkey in northeastern Syria, according to the United Nations.

Many have traveled south and deeper into Syria, while more than 7,000 mainly-Kurdish civilians have gone to Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the U.N.

Many ethnic Kurds in northeastern Syria feel betrayed by the U.S.’ withdrawal, which has left them more vulnerable to the Turkish offensive that is due to restart at 10 p.m. local time Tuesday (3 p.m. ET.)

Randa Shekhums Hussein and her family fled from al Darbasiyah, just east of Ras Al-Ayn, to Dohuk earlier in the week.Yuka Tachibana / NBC News

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he will continue his offensive into northeastern Syria and would "crush the heads" of the Syrian-Kurdish fighters if they had not withdrawn from his so-called "safe zone" by the end of the five-day pause in fighting, according to Reuters.

Most of those arriving in Bardarash and its U.N.-branded tents carried little more than a shopping bag-full of clothes.

“We came like this. We didn’t have time to bring anything,” Randa Shekhmus Hussein, 29, a mother of three, said.

Baradarash Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan is sheltering thousands of Syrian refugees who fled recent fighting.Yuka Tachibana / NBC News

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been crucial U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State militant group and some are still working with the U.S. to defend oil fields from ISIS and other militants in northeast Syria amid the chaos caused by Turkish bombardment.

Mustafa Ramadan, a mechanic, described the U.S. move as a betrayal.

“Everything is finished. My house has been destroyed by the shelling,” the 45-year-old said from inside the barbed-wire fence of the refugee camp.

“In a flash, everything is gone.”

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out most of the some 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria has left a diplomatic and military vacuum in the region that is swiftly being filled by Moscow.

Trump's move also left the fate of the Kurds largely in the hands of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Erdogan, who met in Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday — hours before the suspension in fighting was set to end.

Despite withering domestic and international criticism, Trump has defended his decision.

“We never agreed to protect the Kurds," he told reporters Monday. "We fought with them for three and a half to four years, we never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives.”

Matt Bradley and Yuka Tachibana reported from Duhok, Iraq. Saphora Smith reported from London.