US trying to reassure Iraqi Kurds after Syria fiasco
US Vice-President Mike Pence’s trip to Iraq on November 23 was not only designed to be a morale booster — as he and his wife served an early Thanksgiving dinner to about 150 American servicemen and women — but also an attempt to shore up US relations with the Kurds in the aftermath of the abrupt US pullout from north-eastern Syria in October.
Shortly after visiting Al Asad Air Base, west of Baghdad, Pence and his team flew to Erbil where he met with Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Nechirvan Barzani and other Iraqi Kurdish officials.
Pence spoke publicly about “the enduring bond that exists between the Kurdish people and the people of the United States.”
Then, speaking on behalf of US President Donald Trump, Pence added that he wanted to “reiterate the strong bonds forged in the fires of war between the people of the United States and the Kurdish people across this region,” which implied the Syrian Kurds as well.
The Washington Post reported that an unnamed US official who accompanied Pence told reporters that the vice-president had requested the meeting with Barzani to show “we’re not anti-Kurd.”
This trip was clearly designed to try to mend fences with the Kurds in the wake of Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of US troops from north-eastern Syria soon after his October phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
After the conversation, the Turkish leader quickly sent his troops and those of his Syrian rebel allies into this area, resulting in the death of more than 100 Kurdish fighters and civilians and the flight of more than 170,000 Kurds.
Kurdish resentment of this US decision was palpable, as some retreating US military vehicles leaving the border region were pelted with rocks and stones. Some US Special Forces said they felt a sense of “shame” for being ordered to abandon their Kurdish allies, who had fought bravely with them and had taken the brunt of the casualties in the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS).
After considerable pushback from the Pentagon and Congress, Trump eventually agreed not to pull out all US troops from Syria as was his original intention but to retain about 600 of them.
Pentagon officials have said the mission of these troops is to keep the oil fields in the Deir ez-Zor region out of the hands of ISIS and the Syrian government and weed out ISIS cells below the Turkish-occupied zone.
US military officials have emphasised that the mission against ISIS remnants is still very active. CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie said at the Manama Dialogue Security Conference in Bahrain on November 23 that these pockets of ISIS fighters “still have the power to injure, still have the power to cause violence,” the New York Times reported.
McKenzie also noted that US troops and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recently participated in a major operation in the Deir ez-Zor region where they killed many ISIS fighters and captured a dozen more.
McKenzie was, in essence, underscoring that the US partnership with the SDF would continue, though he gave no timeline on how long it would last. Keenly aware of the controversy surrounding the October pullout, he said the relationship between the United States and the Kurds was now “pretty good.”
But for the Syrian Kurdish refugees, the bitterness of the October withdrawal is still strong. A group of CNN reporters recently interviewed a Kurdish construction worker from the border town of Ras al-Ain who had to flee with his wife and children and are now living in a dingy school classroom in the city of Hasakah, south of the Turkish-occupied zone. He said he was once happy to have his children pose for photos with American soldiers, but “since America betrayed us, every time I look at these photos… I want to erase them… What about the innocent people who were depending on you?… Why did you betray these people? Why did Trump do this?”
Despite Pence’s reassuring words and the ongoing military cooperation between the United States and the Kurds against ISIS, the Trump policy has acquiesced to the Turkish occupation and there is no pressure on the Turks to allow for Kurdish families to return to their homes, many of which have been looted, in the border region.
The so-called “enduring bond” between the Americans and Kurds may only last as long as they have a common enemy. Pence told US troops that Trump “is always looking for opportunities to bring our troops home.”
If Pence really wanted to make an impression on the Kurds, he would have gone to one of the refugee camps of the recently displaced Syrian Kurds and offered tangible assistance instead of going to Erbil, which has been relatively safe and prosperous. But then Pence would have had to answer difficult questions such as those posed by the Kurdish refugee father mentioned above, for which he probably would not have had any good answers.