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'Dangerous And Unpredictable': Australians Trapped In Syria As Turkey Attacks

Donald Trump's shock decision to pull troops from Syria has left Australians at risk.

More than 60 Australian women and children -- the family of alleged ISIS supporters -- remain in limbo in refugee camps in Syria's north-east, blocked by the federal government from coming home, but now at the mercy of another foreign threat.

President Trump's snap decision to withdraw forces from the region, where they had been stationed for years in stamping out ISIS resistance, has thrown the region into chaos.

Overnight, Turkey launched military action in Syria, killing two civilians and wounding two others, according to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Smoke rises from the Syrian side of the border as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. Photo: Reuters.

There had been fears Turkey would use the withdrawal of US troops to pursue Kurdish forces, which it sees as terrorists stemming from a historical conflict.

READ MORE: 'Disaster In The Making': Turkish Military Advance On Syria As US Pulls Out

READ MORE: 'We Have Defeated ISIS': Trump Starts US Troop Withdrawal In Syria

At the same time, some have warned that the American withdrawal may pave the way for a resurgence of ISIS, whose forces are heavily weakened but not totally eradicated.

A Turkish tank drives towards the border with Syria on October 8. Image: Getty

So what's going on in the region? And how could it further destabilise the Middle East?

Why did Trump withdraw American troops from Syria?

Trump has long criticised America's involvement in various conflicts around the world, railing against spending money and sending troops to far-flung corners of the globe. His philosophy, of nationalism or isolationism over globalism, has seen him push for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Middle Eastern conflicts unless there is benefit to his country.

"WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS? ZERO," he tweeted in 2013, before becoming president.

Trump made the decision soon after a call with Turkey's president Recep Erdogan. Image: Getty

Since taking the Oval Office, he has signalled his plan to bring troops home, claiming in December 2018 that he had "defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there" and in February 2019 that "it is now time to start coming home and, after many years, spending our money wisely."

READ MORE: Syria Is The World's Test Of Humanity. We Are Failing.

But his sudden decision this week to actually put that plan into action caught allies, and even top American military brass, off-guard. Retired admiral James Stavridis told MSNBC that "everyone was flabbergasted by this" and that "nobody saw it coming".

READ MORE: Trump's Allies Are Turning On Him Over Troop Withdrawal From Syria

The decision reportedly came after a phone call between Trump and Turkish president Recep Erdogan. Trump defended the decision, saying troops were "supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago."

How is Turkey involved?

Turkey and Syria share a land border. Kurdish people have long hoped for their own separate state, including a separatist movement demanding an autonomous region straddling Syria and Turkey. Armed conflicts between Kurds and Turks have simmered for a century, with the Kurdistan Workers' Party a leading separatist group since the late 1970s.

U.S. troops have in recent years acted as a 'buffer' between Kurdish and Turkish forces near the northern border.

The Syrian Democratic Forces fear that, with the American withdrawal, a number of ethnic minorities including Kurds, Yazidis and Assyrians may be at risk of being "ethnically cleansed".

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement on Monday.

READ MORE: Trump's Allies Are Turning On Him Over Troop Withdrawal From Syria

READ MORE: Does Islamic State Still Pose A Terror Threat?

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Turkish air and ground attacks are expected in the region within 24 hours, and that the U.S. would not intervene.

Trump tweeted on Tuesday night that "in no way have we abandoned the Kurds", adding that the U.S. had supplied them with weapons and money. He hinted at "devastating" repercussions if Turkey engaged in "unnecessary fighting".

What is happening to Australians in Syria?

Australia, like other global allies, was caught off-guard by Trump's announcement. The government is now working to extract the Australian wives and children of Islamic State militants, who are trapped in the al-Hawl refugee camp in north-eastern Syria.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne told ABC radio on Wednesday that evacuating the 65 women and children -- most aged under five -- was "very dangerous, it is very complex, it is very time-consuming."

An internal security patrol escorts women, reportedly wives of Islamic State fighters, in the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, on July 23. Image: Getty

Senator Payne said the government could only offer limited consular assistance to the Australians, but was working with "not just humanitarian agencies, but non-state forces and groups" to ensure their safety.

"What we are able to do we will do, and we do, but we won't put further Australian officials or forces or the public in danger in doing so," she said, calling the situation "highly dangerous, highly unpredictable".

What does this mean for ISIS?

Foreign policy experts fear that the U.S. withdrawal will take the boot off the neck of ISIS, which is nearly -- but not totally -- destroyed after years of conflict. It is also being seen as relenting pressure on Syrian allies like Iran.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, usually a strong supporter of Trump, claimed the decision was "a big win for Iran and Assad [and] a big win for ISIS".

Turkish soldiers drive towards the border with Syria near Akcakale on October 8. Image: Getty

"ISIS is not defeated. This is the biggest lie being told by this administration,” Graham told Fox News.

Brett McGurk, a former U.S. envoy to a global anti-ISIS coalition, claimed the move was a "gift" to the terror group, and that it "opens Pandora's box" to further chaos in the region.

On Wednesday, an ISIS incursion into the Syrian city of Raqqa commenced, with multiple suicide bombings. "Dozens" of other ISIS fighters are trying to take control of the city.

With AAP.

Contact the author: jobutler@networkten.com.au