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Kurds In Syria Make A Deal With Russia


America's allies in the fight against ISIS, the Kurds in Syria, have opened the door to a new friend - Russia. Russian troops and flags moved into Kurdish territory over the weekend. That's a part of Syria where U.S. troops also work with the Kurds. After months of mixed signals from the Trump administration, the Kurds seem to be hedging their bets on continued U.S. support.

NPR's Jane Arraf is in northeastern Syria. She joins me now. Hi, Jane.


KELLY: Hi. I know you've been out and about reporting today. Were you actually able to see these Russian flags flying? What's it look like?

ARRAF: We actually were able to see them on the side of the road just on the outskirts of this town called Amuda, which is a couple of miles from the Turkish border but outside of what's widely considered to be the agreement for Turkish-Russian patrols. So earlier today, the commander of Syrian Kurdish forces, General Mazloum Abdi, announced that he had reached this agreement. And it's with the commander of Russian forces in Syria for the deployment of Russian troops in three new areas, including this one.

And so we're going down the highway. And on one side, there is now a collection of buildings that has a Russian flag flying. And not only the flag, there were soldiers on the roof. And the weird thing about this also is, after driving past that new Russian base, we turned down a highway and there is a U.S. convoy - armored vehicles flying the American flag because, although the numbers of U.S. forces have been reduced here, they're not entirely gone. There's still 400 to 500 of them. So it makes for a very interesting space here.

KELLY: Yeah - and right up next to each other. What - I described the Kurds' thinking here as hedging their bets. What is the calculation that the Kurds are making?

ARRAF: Well, it's essentially that they need protection, and that's protection they lost when the U.S. pulled out from border areas that allowed Turkish troops to invade in October. I spoke to one of the spokesmen for Syrian Kurdish forces, and he said they've lost 4,000 square miles. And basically, they don't have a lot of good options here. They're going to probably have to sit down and negotiate with the Syrian regime that they broke away from, and that also means coming to an agreement with Syria's Russian allies.

KELLY: And before we let you go, I want to ask - are U.S. and Russian troops bumping into each other? Are they crossing paths? How close are they?

ARRAF: Well, they're doing what they call deconfliction, which is making sure that everybody knows where everyone is supposedly so they don't actually cross paths. But you know, there's a bigger concern here. This is the waning of American influence in Syria - as well as other parts of the Middle East - and the rising of Russian influence, and we're seeing that on the ground.

KELLY: Remarkable - and now seeing these Russian flags flying where they weren't just days before.

NPR's Jane Arraf reporting there from northeastern Syria. Thank you, Jane.

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

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.