BEIRUT (AP) — The crowd hurled potatoes that thudded on the sides of the hulking U.S. armored vehicles. "What happened to Americans?" a man shouted in English at the sole U.S. soldier visible on the back of a vehicle. The soldier stared silently straight ahead, away from the show of fury.
It was yet another indignity in a U.S. withdrawal that has been carried out over the past two weeks with more haste and violence than expected — and which may now be partially reversed.
The turmoil was only in part because President Donald Trump's Oct. 13 order to leave was so abrupt. There had been little U.S. preparation for how to deal with a subsequent invasion by Turkey, though Ankara had been threatening it for months. When it did strike, Turkey hit more widely across northeastern Syria than anticipated and was startlingly aggressive, trying to shove U.S. soldiers out of its way. Turkish artillery fire and Turkish-backed fighters came dangerously close to three American positions, U.S. and Kurdish officials said.
On Monday, a U.S. convoy was passing down an avenue in the Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishli, on the way out of Syria, when it caught the brunt of residents' anger and frustration at the American military that once was their closest ally and now was abandoning them.
"Like rats, America is running away," a man shouted in Arabic at the vehicles, shown in a video released by the Kurdish news agency.
One armored vehicle, its U.S. flag flying on the back, reversed down the street and popped onto the sidewalk, apparently searching for a way around the angry men stomping toward it, jabbing their fingers in the air and shouting insults.
Now, the whole rationale Trump put forward for the retreat — to get American troops out of the Mideast and "endless wars" — is in doubt.
Rather than leaving the region, the withdrawing troops will deploy in neighboring Iraq to fight the Islamic State group, which could get new life from the Syrian turmoil. Some U.S. forces are still in eastern Syria, helping Kurdish fighters protect oilfields. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday he was discussing keeping them there.
Trump surprised even his own military on the ground when he agreed to remove U.S. soldiers working with Kurdish-led forces near the border in an Oct. 6 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Three days later, Turkey launched its offensive with heavy bombardment along the border.
For the U.S. troops, it had not been clear how far the Turkish offensive would go, but they were promised they were out of harm's way. The assault was expected to target a block of territory in the center of the border where the United States and Turkey had been trying to work out a compromise "safe zone" arrangement.
Senior Pentagon officials said repeatedly that there was frequent communication with the Turks to avoid accidents on the ground and in the air. But one U.S. official with knowledge of the ground said Turkey's actions were unilateral and "dangerous to coalition forces and civilians." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.