Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen Votel: US needs to protect Syrian Kurds

Tuesday’s Armed Services Committee hearing certainly affirmed the senators’ sympathy with and deep appreciation of Syria’s Kurds and their contribution to the defeat of the Islamic State.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Gen. Joseph Votel, outgoing CENTCOM Commander, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday to testify about next year’s budget. A significant part of the discussion, however, revolved around the Trump administration’s plans for drawing down its forces, including in Syria.

During the hearing, senators repeatedly pressed Votel on the need to protect America’s Kurdish allies as the US withdraws forces from Syria. And, repeatedly, Votel agreed with them.

“As our troops withdraw from Syria, what efforts are being made to ensure the safety and security of our Kurdish allies?” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D, New Mexico) asked Votel.

“This is a key aspect of the ongoing planning right now, Senator,” the General responded.

“Of the many tasks that we have of defeating ISIS and withdrawing our forces, certainly we add to that list,” Votel continued—before engaging in a delicate verbal balancing act—“the protection of Turkey,” as well as “making sure that we protect those who have fought with us,” he stated, alluding to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)

Votel concluded, by explaining, “A key aspect of our ongoing planning efforts” at both the diplomatic and military levels is to “make sure that those who have fought with us, who have helped us accomplish the mission, are safeguarded as we depart Syria.”

The threat to the Kurds (and others in northeastern Syria) arises because of Turkey’s insistence on having a “safe zone” along its southern border with Syria. Turkey wants to police the zone, but that is unacceptable to most of the population living there. They fear that Turkey and its Arab allies will engage in gross human rights violations, including rape and murder, as they did last year in the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin.

Another senator, Angus King (R. Maine), reiterated those concerns, telling Votel, “Sen. Heinrich mentioned the danger to the Kurds, and I hope you will emphasize to your successor the importance of protecting the Kurds.”

“If they are slaughtered by the Turks,” King continued in unusually strong language for a senator, “within a reasonable proximity of our leaving, it will be a stain on the honor of this country.”

Such a stain would also compromise the US “ability to attract allies to assist us” in the future, King added.

Similarly, Marsha Blackburn, a long-time representative of Nashville in the House of Representatives, is now Tennessee’s junior senator having won a seat in the US Senate in last November elections.

Blackburn advised Votel that Washington “has sent some mixed messages about the terms of the US withdrawal from Syria and whether there is protection for the Syrian Kurds.”

“I believe that any withdrawal from Syria must be conditions-based,” she told the General, and clearly there has to be a plan to protect the Kurds,” and such a plan “must clearly outline our expectations of Turkey.” He did not disagree.

Following the hearing, the committee chairman, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R, Oklahoma) met with Bayan Abdul Rahman, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government mission in Washington DC.

As Abdul Rahman tweeted, she thanked the senator for his support to the Kurds in their meeting, which also covered the threat from the Islamic State and how to prevent its resurgence.

Tuesday’s Armed Services Committee hearing certainly affirmed the senators’ sympathy with and deep appreciation of Syria’s Kurds and their contribution to the defeat of the Islamic State.

It did not, however, really answer the question of how robust the US’ defense of the Kurds will be once US forces leave Syria, nor how that defense will be implemented.

Later on Wednesday, President Donald Trump will address a Ministerial conference of the 79 member coalition to defeat the Islamic State. It is possible that his plans for Syria, including on how the US will protect the Kurds, will become clearer then.

Editing by Nadia Riva