'Americans deserted us': Kurdish despair laid bare as Syria cease-fire nears end

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By Saphora Smith and Matt Bradley and Yuka Tachibana  with NBC News World News
Image: Syrian refugees
Displaced Syrians arrive at the Bardarash camp, near the Kurdish city of Dohuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.   -  Copyright  Safin Hamed

DUHOK, Iraq — Kurdish civilians fleeing Turkish troops in Syriaangrily blamed erstwhile ally America for their misery as the clock ran down on the five-day pause in fighting ending later on 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 hand-written 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 at the United States.

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

"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."

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.'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. E.T.)

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

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his offensive into northeastern Syria and would "crush the heads" of the Syrian-Kurdish fighters if they had not withdrawn from his so-called "safe zone" by the end of the five-day pause in fighting, according to Reuters.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," said Randa Shekhmus Hussein, 29, a mother of three.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have beencrucial U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic Stategroup and some are still working with the U.S. to defend oilfields from ISIS and other militants in northeast Syria amid the chaos caused by Turkish bombardment.

Mechanic, Mustafa Ramadan, described it as a betrayal.

Baradarash Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan is sheltering thousands of Syrian refugees who fled the recent fighting.
Baradarash Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan is sheltering thousands of Syrian refugees who fled the recent fighting.Yuka Tachibana

"Everything is finished. My house has been destroyed by the shelling," said a 45-year-old speaking 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 Vladimr Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who were due to meet 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.