WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, spoke at a bipartisan event in the U.S. Capitol hosted by the Washington Kurdish Institute. In his remarks, Warner called on the Senate to take up and pass the Syrian Allies Protection Act, legislation Warner introduced that would make U.S. visas available to Kurdish Syrians who worked directly with the U.S. armed forces in Syria.
These individuals’ lives now may be in danger after President Trump abruptly withdrew American troops from northern Syria and allowed a Turkish military operation to move forward against Kurdish fighters, who have been integral partners in the fight against ISIS. Since the Turkish offensive began last month, there have been reports of executions and human rights abuses against Kurdish fighters and civilians, and at least 99,200 people in northeastern Syria remain displaced, with 14,000 refugees seeking shelter in Iraq, according to the United Nations.
Responding to the President’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria, Warner said, “It's now a month and a half since the President of the United States – in one phone call – undermined our Kurdish allies, completely caught the American military and the American intelligence community totally off-guard, and threw the region into chaos. As a result of that telephone conversation, men and women of the SDF [Syrian Defense Forces] and other Kurdish allies – who literally up until that phone call, in many cases, were standing with the American military – are now subject to being killed.”
The Senator continued, “I also think the President's decision to abandon the Kurds will be a disaster for American foreign policy for decades. How do we go back to allies or potential allies in a very troubled region and say, ‘If you align with us and promote democratic values and promote human rights and stand with us, we will stand with you?’”
On the question of who benefits most from the withdrawal of American troops, Warner noted, “Who are the winners? Iran… [Syrian Dictator Bashar al] Assad… Vladimir Putin… ISIS. These are not allies of the United States or the Kurdish people.”
According to a report from the Defense Department released Tuesday, the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria and the drawdown of U.S. troops allowed ISIS to “reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad... In the longer term, ISIS will probably seek to regain control of some Syrian population centers and expand its global footprint.” The report also noted that the Turkish offensive allowed Russian and Syrian government forces to move into northeast Syria, a development the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said “would likely impact” U.S. goals for a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war.
In his remarks, Warner called on Congress to pass his legislation to protect Kurdish Syrians who worked directly with the U.S. armed forces in Syria prior to the President’s withdrawal.
“One thing that is the bare minimum we should do is support legislation that I've put forward called the Syrian Allies Protection Act. What that says is very simply that the men and women, the Kurdish men and women allies who had been working with the United States military or our intelligence services for at least six months, ought to be protected on a going-forward basis,” Warner said.
Similar to congressionally-directed programs that made select Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked as interpreters or in other vital military support positions eligible for special immigrant visas, the Syrian Allies Protection Act would protect those Kurds in Syria who worked most closely with the United States, usually as translators, and whose lives are now threatened not only by the ongoing Turkish incursion, but by potential retaliation by freed ISIS fighters, regime forces, and other foreign interests in Syria now that the protection of American forces has been removed. The legislation would provide permanent American residence to Syrian nationals who worked for the U.S. armed forces for at least six months, have obtained a favorable recommendation from a general or flag officer in the chain of command, and have passed a background check and screening. The legislation would also direct the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security, to develop and implement a framework to evacuate these eligible individuals to safety – either in the United States or a third country – while vetting takes place, if their lives are at risk remaining in Syria.
The Washington Kurdish Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, research and educational organization that was established in 1996, which represents Kurdish American interests and advocates for policies supporting the development of Kurdistan’s civil society.