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The lone road out of Ras al-Ayn was empty, except for one overladen lorry that slowly made its way along a lethal mile from war zone to exile. Shells thudded into buildings in the distance as Kurdish forces in vans prepared to race jets and sniper fire, trying to get to a battle that almost everyone else had left.
Those who remained in the border town at the frontline of the war for north-eastern Syria were there to fight; the Kurds rallying to defend it and the Arabs preparing to seize it from them. Early on Saturday, the Arab force, trained by Turkey, made its move. By the day's end, the proxies claimed to have recaptured part of Ras al-Ayn, making good on Ankara's threats to push Kurdish forces from one of their main enclaves.
At the same time, US troops, who once trained the same Arabs before more recently fighting alongside the Kurds against Islamic State (Isis), were preparing to exit Syria for good, their five-year war against the terror group at an end. So, too, was their relationship with their hosts.
© EPAAgricultural workers watch Turkish military vehicles on the way to northern Syria.
The bewildering events of last week may have seemed like chess moves to some: considered manoeuvres made in awareness of the consequences. To others, including European leaders now scrambling to pick up the pieces and Kurds now looking for a rescuer, Donald Trump's decision to abandon an ally on the eve of their being invaded was an impulsive act likely to change the course of the region.
In the heartland of Syria's Kurds, old alliances are fast being trampled by new realities that bear no resemblance to the last five years of war. From this point, the Kurds who have shouldered the fight against the global menace of Isis will need to fend for themselves; the US, which historically took a lead stake in how things unfolded in the Middle East, has effectively left the stage, and Turkey - long rattled by the ascendancy of Syria's Kurds - aims to re-engineer the border's demographics.
What all this may end up unleashing is preoccupying London, Paris and other western capitals which, like the Kurds, are grappling to come to terms with a vastly diminished US role and the vacuum it creates. What it may mean for ethnic coexistence in the region is now also being questioned: Arabs fighting Kurds for land adds another dimension to the chaos of the Syrian war, as does a demographic realignment. © ReutersAn explosion in the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn, which Turkish forces were attempting to capture. Photograph: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters
Wasting no time, Russia has already stepped up, declaring that the Kurds' only way out is to strike a deal with the Syrian regime - whom Moscow has supported throughout the civil war. Such seismic shifts also continue to ripple through north-eastern Syria, where the relative post-Isis calm of recent months has given way to a new wave of existential fears, perhaps worse than those that have plagued Kurds for centuries. "How can this happen to us?" said Kawa Otthman, 27. "We fought for them and they gave us their word. We thought it was different this time."
The shift has been drastic, all the more so for being so sudden. Only one week ago, officials in the province, known locally as Rojava, were calibrating how to deepen their relationship with the US. Now, with Washington's diplomats and troops ordered to leave, the sense of abandonment is palpable. In the regional capital of Qamishli on Saturday Syrian government troops guarded a neighbourhood that had remained loyal to Damascus throughout the country's civil war. "We need to speak to Bashar," said one man, of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, as he waited to buy fruit at the market. "Who else will protect us from the Turks now?"
The US presence in Rojava had been seen by Kurds as a buffer between them and Turkey. To Ankara, though, by being in north-eastern Syria and partnering with the Kurds, the US had given an avowed enemy cover to further a project that had little to do with fighting Isis, and instead gave impetus to a four-decade insurgency inside its borders.
Kurds honour their battle dead on billboards placed near main roads on the approaches to towns. Across the top of each are photos of men and women from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), their affiliations made clear by the organisation's red flag.
Over the course of the Syrian civil war, the PKK has consolidated its presence in the affairs of the northeast and its members dominate senior administrative and military positions. In 2015, when US officials struck a partnership with Syrian Kurds to fight Isis, the PKK was supportive and had remained so ever since.
The pact, called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), drew in large numbers of Kurdish fighters, along with some Arab units. Together, they acted as ground troops for the US air force, ousting Isis from its remaining lands, while suffering close to 11,000 casualties. © AFP via Getty ImagesTurkish-backed Syrian rebels and Turkish soldiers watch as smoke billows from the border town of Ras al-Ayn on Saturday. Photograph: Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP via Getty Images
Throughout the campaign, Turkey insisted that Kurdish cooperation was a Trojan horse that had strengthened a foe along its southern perimeter, posing an intolerable threat.
Debate about Washington's Kurdish allies caused ructions between US military leaders who valued the Kurds' commitment, and state department officials who lamented the impact such a pact could inevitably have on a relationship with a Nato ally. "It was always going to come to a head," said a still serving US official. "Some of us are surprised it took this long."
Aid agencies claim 100,000 people have now fled the conflict. As the war's newest refugees escape, the bones of Turkey's border plan are starting to take shape. Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn are both seen as hubs in which Syrian Arabs currently exiled in Turkey could be relocated, at the expense of Kurdish populations currently living there.
Near the border on Saturday, thuds of artillery rounds and machine-gun fire regularly shook the still, hot air. On the Turkish side, soldiers lined the road south waiting for the arrival of Süleyman Soylu, the interior minister, to claim the first significant Turkish victory in the operation. His arrival may have been premature: Abu Mukdad, a field commander with the rebel Syrian national army, said that his men were only in control of 15% of the town as of Saturday afternoon.
We all used to live together as neighbours. Now they will put strangers in our homes
"They're having a difficult time because there is intense resistance from [Kurdish forces]," he said. "There are no civilians left but this may still take one more day."
Turkish TV channels broadcast footage of men from the Syrian divisions using their rifles to smash pictures of the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and tearing down pictures of martyred SDF soldiers inside the town. The Kurdish-led fighters appeared to hold out in the town's outskirts as bombing continued.
Ras al-Ayn's capture would mean Turkey could try to cut the road from the eastern Kurdish city Qamishli, the de facto capital, to all the other Kurdish positions west along the border.
A Kurdish woman in the Turkish border town of Viransehir, originally from Ras al-Ayn, burst into tears watching the carnage unfold from her living room television set. "That was my neighbourhood and my house," she said. "It was all I had left and now it's gone."
The small town was home to a diverse mix of Kurdish, Arab, Circassian and Armenian communities before the war began, she said. Now, if Erdogan sends Arab families from elsewhere in Syria to repopulate the border zone as planned, she fears she will never be able to return.
"The [Syrian rebels] will never protect the Kurds," she said. "We all used to live together as neighbours and now they will put strangers in our homes."
Pictures: Tensions in Syria