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Manbij residents in limbo amid US withdrawal uncertainty

Beirut, Lebanon – When Jaseem heard President Donald Trump decided to pull US troops out of Syria, he began planning his escape from the northern city of Manbij. In the days following Trump’s announcement, both the Syrian government and Turkey moved to fill what they assumed would be a vacuum, starting in Manbij. The United States’s…

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Manbij residents in limbo amid US withdrawal uncertainty

Beirut, Lebanon – When Jaseem heard President Donald Trump decided to pull US troops out of Syria, he began planning his escape from the northern city of Manbij.

In the days following Trump’s announcement, both the Syrian government and Turkey moved to fill what they assumed would be a vacuum, starting in Manbij. The United States’s military presence guaranteed Kurdish rule in the city since 2016.

Jaseem, whose name has been changed for security reasons, is an ethnic Arab – like most Manbij residents – but he said he preferred rule by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to either the Syrian government or Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army militias, such as those ruling the rebel enclave of Idlib.

“The SDF made us feel safe,” the 40-year old told Al Jazeera. “The Syrian government thinks we are all traitors and may arrest us, and we cannot go to Idlib because every day there are explosions and kidnappings there.”

Trump’s decision last month was an unexpected boon, on the surface, for both the Syrian government and Turkey. The SDF controls not only Manbij but most of Syria east of the Euphrates, where the US has guaranteed SDF rule.

The Syrian government, however, wants to retake all of the country, while Turkey regards the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominates the SDF, as a “terrorist” entity that is part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara already launched one bloody battle against the YPG in the town of Afrin last February.

Abandoning the Kurds?

Trump subsequently suggested the withdrawal of troops would be “slow” and told the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham he would not abandon the US’s local allies, or leave eastern Syria open to Iranian influence.

“ISIS is mostly gone, we’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time, fighting ISIS remnants,” Trump tweeted, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL.

The New York Times reported from Washington that Trump had extended the deadline for the troops’ return from 30 days to four months. But a day after the report, Trump denied fixing any timeline for the withdrawal, merely emphasizing his intentions. He said, “We are getting out of Syria.”

Jaseem, who has four daughters, said he was relieved at the change. He said he fears arrest by the Syrian regime, or at least conscription into the army, if it takes over Manbij.

“I cannot tell you how safe we feel with the Americans present,” said Jaseem. “The American presence protects us from both the Syrian government and Turkey.”

But he is still uncertain how long his family will be safe for and where their lives are heading next, torn between staying put or leaving the city.

Change America’s mind?

Mohammad, a Kurdish activist in Manbij, told Al Jazeera Trump’s latest comments provided some temporary relief.

“It is too early to understand what it means,” said Mohammad, requesting only his first name be used. “We are not sure if the pullout will be delayed, but I know that Kurdish fighters are working very hard to change America’s mind.”

Former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Special Envoy to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk both resigned in opposition to Trump’s troop withdrawal decision.

At one stage of Syria’s war, the YPG pursued the establishment of autonomous self-rule across the vast swath of territory it carved out along the Turkish border, running from the Iraqi border in the northeast, through Kobane to Afrin in the northwest.

That dream was quashed by the loss of Afrin, but the Kurds remain hopeful of setting up some form of autonomous rule in the territory they continue to hold.

The American presence gave them a sizable bargaining chip in the final settlement of the conflict. The slower the US pullout, the more time the Kurds will have to work on a deal.

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the YPG did not have to evacuate from Manbij – as Turkey demands – if it played its cards right.

“I do not think they have to withdraw, but rather accept nominal regime return while negotiations continue over more tangible things like political and military control,” he said.

On January 2, the Syrian government said at least 400 Kurdish fighters left Manbij, even as locals on the ground told Al Jazeera many are still remaining as a part of the Manbij Military council. Turkey has not yet responded to Syria’s assertion.

Russia will be a key player, particularly if the US decides not to intervene further. It retains strong influence over both Turkey and Damascus, as the regime’s guarantor.

Fawzia Yousif, a member of the Kurds’ autonomous administration in Syria’s northeast, said the delay in the US withdrawing troops could give the Kurds more time to get better terms in a final understanding with the Syrian government.

“If the pullout delay takes place, it would have a positive impact on the war on ISIS, which is still going on in Deir Az Zor,” she said. “It would also have an impact on the political process and the upcoming talks in Geneva.”

‘Bad choices’

The Trump administration can still apply pressure on the Syrian government through the decisions it takes as it prepares an exit.

The military commanders of the Pentagon, caught off-guard by Trump’s decision, are preparing a list of recommendations for the troops’ withdrawal. They may suggest retaining some American presence to maintain the series of air bases the US has built across the northeast, and leave the Kurds with the weapons with which they were provided to fight ISIL.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was unlikely to give the Kurds complete autonomy, it might be open to some cultural concessions.

“For Kurds, there are bad choices all around,” he said. “But now, the Syrian government is entering America’s shoes. The Kurds may not be happy with this but that’s what they are likely to get.”

Landis said the people of Manbij had “kept their heads down” and refrained from expressing outright loyalty to either side in the war. They might now be better off sticking to the same playbook.

Jaseem said the takeover of Manbij, first by the Free Syrian Army in 2012, and then ISIL in 2014, had left residents scarred. “We are tired of war. We just do not want more war.”

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UK spy chief warns China, Russia racing to master AI

MI6 chief Richard Moore says Beijing and Moscow ‘pouring money’ into technological advances that will reshape espionage and geopolitics.The chief of the United Kingdom’s foreign spy service is to warn that China and Russia are racing to master artificial intelligence in a way that could revolutionise geopolitics over the next 10 years. Richard Moore, who…

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UK spy chief warns China, Russia racing to master AI

MI6 chief Richard Moore says Beijing and Moscow ‘pouring money’
into technological advances that will reshape espionage and geopolitics.The chief of the United Kingdom’s foreign spy service is to warn that China and Russia are racing to master artificial intelligence in a way that could revolutionise geopolitics over the next 10 years.
Richard Moore, who heads the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, is due to make his first public speech since becoming chief of the organisation on Tuesday.
In extracts of the speech released in advance by the British government he will say quantum engineering, engineered biology, vast troves of data and advances in computer power pose a threat that needs to be addressed by democratic powers.
“Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology, because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage,” Moore, who rarely makes public speeches, will say when he sets out his view of current threats.
The world’s spies are trying to grapple with seismic advances in technology that are challenging traditional human-led spying operations, which have dominated espionage for thousands of years.
Moore, a former diplomat, became MI6 chief in October 2020.
Speaking at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies think tank, he will stress that technological progress over the next decade could outstrip all the tech advances made over the past century.
“As a society, we have yet to internalise this stark fact and its potential impact on global geopolitics. But it is a white-hot focus for MI6,” he will say.
Of particular concern to the spies in the world’s liberal democracies are Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies, which have rushed to harness the power of a range of sophisticated technologies, sometimes at a faster pace than in the West.
Western intelligence agencies fear Beijing could dominate all key emerging technologies within decades, particularly artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and genetics.
China’s economic and military rise over the past 40 years is considered one of the most significant geopolitical events of recent times, alongside the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, which ended the Cold War.
MI6, depicted by novelists as the employer of some of the most memorable fictional spies from John le Carré’s George Smiley to Ian Fleming’s James Bond, operates overseas and is tasked with defending the UK and its interests.
Moore says the service will have to give up some of its deep-rooted secrecy and work with technology firms to combat the rapidly developing threats.
MI6 and western intelligence agencies will have to “become more open to stay secret” in a world of destabilising technological change, he will say.
“We cannot hope to replicate the global tech industry, so we must tap into it.”
The agency has become more open in recent years, even allowing publication of an authorised history although it only covers the period up until 1949.
MI6 began publicly naming its chief, who uses the code name C and is the only publicly identifiable member of the organisation, in the 1990s.

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Pentagon to review deadly 2019 US bombings in Syria

US will look into whether procedures were followed after NY Times reported dozens of civilians were killed in bombings.United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered a review into US military bombings in Syria in March 2019 that the New York Times recently reported killed dozens of civilians during the battle for the final…

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Pentagon to review deadly 2019 US bombings in Syria

US will look into whether procedures were followed after NY Times reported dozens of civilians were killed in bombings.United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered a review into US military bombings in Syria in March 2019 that the New York Times recently reported killed dozens of civilians during the battle for the final stronghold of ISIL (ISIS).
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby announced the probe on Monday, saying it would be led by General Michael Garrett, the head of US Army Forces Command.
Earlier this month, the US military acknowledged that civilians may have been killed in the bombings in Baghouz, near the Iraqi border in 2019. At the time, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were leading the fight on the ground with American air support.
“Likely a majority of those killed were also combatants at the time of the strike. However, it is also highly likely that there were additional civilian casualties,” Bill Urban, a US military spokesman, said in a statement on November 14.
He added that “investigations were unable to conclusively characterize the status of more than 60 other casualties that resulted from these strikes”.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the review into the 2019 US military bombings, the Pentagon spokesman announced [File: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]Urban’s statement came a day after the New York Times, citing anonymous sources and classified documents,  published a report that accused the US military of concealing the bombings.
The newspaper reported that the bombing struck a “crowd of women and children”, killing 64 people.
“Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors,” the Times wrote.
On Monday, Kirby said the review would look into “record keeping and reporting procedures” and “whether mitigation measures identified in previous investigations into the incident were in fact implemented effectively”.
The probe, which is due in 90 days, will also assess whether “accountability measures” will be appropriate, Kirby added.
The US-led coalition started a bombing campaign against the ISIL (ISIS) group in Syria and Iraq in 2014, and the American military maintains troops in both countries with the stated goal of preventing the group’s resurgence.

Former US President Donald Trump touted the territorial defeat of ISIL (ISIS) as a major policy achievement in his failed 2020 re-election bid.
Rights groups previously accused the US-led coalition of killing civilians during their bombing campaign. A 2019 investigation by Amnesty International, for instance, found that the coalition had killed 1,600 civilians in Raqqa, the ISIL (ISIS) group’s former de-facto capital.
The Associated Press news agency reported on Monday that after the New York Times story was published, Austin received a briefing on the Syria bombings from General Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command.
AP reported that McKenzie’s command said “an initial investigation concluded that the strike constituted legitimate self-defence in support of Syrian partner forces under fire from ISIL”.
The probe into the Syria bombings comes after the Pentagon admitted in September that a US drone attack previously described as “righteous” by a top general had killed 10 civilians, including children, in Kabul during the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But a subsequent internal review by the Pentagon concluded that the bombing did not violate the laws of war or amount to criminal conduct or negligence, prompting outrage.

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Arab Coalition carries out 15 strikes against Houthi militants in Marib

JEDDAH: An influential watchdog body of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine as the only way to stop ongoing human rights abuses against Palestinians. The OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission made its appeal on Monday to coincide with the UN-run International Day of Solidarity with…

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Arab Coalition carries out 15 strikes against Houthi militants in Marib

JEDDAH: An influential watchdog body of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine as the only way to stop ongoing human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission made its appeal on Monday to coincide with the UN-run International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People 2021.

In a statement, the IPHRC pointed out that the solidarity day highlighted the urgent need for the global community to recognize the inalienable right to self-determination of Palestinian people.

“Today is not only an opportunity for the international community to remember that the question of Palestine remains unresolved, but it is also an opportunity to focus attention on the increasing suffering of the Palestinian people, under the Israeli occupation, and to unify all efforts for assisting them to attain their fundamental rights, including the right to self-determination and the right to return for Palestinian refugees to their homes and property, from which they have been displaced,” the commission said.

It also expressed grave concerns over the increasing, “range of violations committed by Israel … particularly the recent draconian measures against Palestinian prisoners and detainees as well as the harassment of Sheikh Jarrah (neighborhood of East Jerusalem) families who remain under the threat of eviction from their houses under baseless and illegal arguments.”

The IPHRC statement urged all human rights groups to raise awareness of what it described as “egregious human rights violations” aimed at “separating Al-Quds (Jerusalem) from its original inhabitants, which is yet another vicious attack on the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people.”

In addition, commission members condemned the recent Israeli designation of six Palestinian human rights and civil society groups as terrorist organizations, a move the IPHRC claimed represented Israel’s misuse of counterterrorism and security legislation to silence opponents and innocent Palestinians.

Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes and forced evictions of residents in Jerusalem and other areas was also slammed by the commission.

It added that there was a “need to investigate these abuses by relevant international mechanisms with a view to holding Israel, the occupying power, accountable for violating international human rights and humanitarian laws.”

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