Pence works to re­as­sure Kur­dish al­lies

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - FRONT PAGE - By Zeke Miller

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence worked to re­as­sure the United States’ Kur­dish al­lies in an unan­nounced trip to Iraq.

IRBIL, IRAQ >> Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence worked to re­as­sure the United States’ Kur­dish al­lies in an unan­nounced trip to Iraq on Satur­day, the high­est-level Amer­i­can trip since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump or­dered a pull­back of U.S. forces in Syria two months ago.

Fly­ing in a C-17 mil­i­tary cargo air­craft, Pence landed in Irbil, cap­i­tal of Iraq’s semi­au­tonomous Kur­dish re­gion, to meet with Iraqi Kur­dis­tan Pres­i­dent Nechir­van Barzani.

The visit was meant to hearten the United States’ re­gional part­ners in the fight against the Is­lamic State group af­ter the U.S. pulled troops from north­ern Syria, leav­ing Amer­ica’s Kur­dish al­lies there to face a bloody cross-bor­der Turk­ish as­sault last month.

Asked by re­porters if the United States was fac­ing a sense of be­trayal from Iraqi and Syr­ian Kur­dish al­lies over Trump’s ac­tions in Syria, Pence said both groups, in­clud­ing Syr­ian Kur­dish forces “who fought along­side us,” had no doubts about the U.S. com­mit­ment to them. “It’s un­chang­ing,” Pence said.

Ear­lier, Pence re­ceived a clas­si­fied brief­ing at Iraq’s Al-Asad Air Base, from which U.S. forces are be­lieved to have launched the op­er­a­tion in Syria last month that re­sulted in the death of Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi. Pence also spoke by phone with Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul-Mahdi.

Un­der­scor­ing Pence’s mes­sage that Amer­i­can mil­i­tary part­ner­ship with Syr­ian Kur­dish forces is on­go­ing, the U.S.-led coali­tion said Satur­day that its forces, along with hun­dreds of Syr­ian Kur­dish com­man­dos, had jointly car­ried out the largest op­er­a­tion against the Is­lamic State in eastern Syria since the U.S. pull­back be­gan in early Oc­to­ber.

Fri­day’s op­er­a­tion in south­east­ern Syria’s Deir el-Zour prov­ince cap­tured dozens of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, cleared en­emy com­pounds and seized weapons and ex­plo­sives, the U.S.-led coali­tion said. Op­er­a­tions against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in Syria had been dis­rupted, but not to­tally halted, be­cause of the U.S. troop pull­back and Turkey’s in­va­sion.

Pence’s trip Satur­day was his sec­ond to the re­gion in five weeks. Trump de­ployed him on a whirl­wind jour­ney to Ankara, Turkey, last month to ne­go­ti­ate a cease­fire af­ter Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan seized on the U.S. with­drawal to launch the of­fen­sive on U.S.-al­lied Kur­dish fight­ers in north­ern Syria. Trump’s move had sparked some of the most uni­fied crit­i­cism of his ad­min­is­tra­tion to date, as law­mak­ers in both par­ties ac­cused Trump of for­sak­ing long­time Kur­dish al­lies and invit­ing Rus­sia and Iran to hold even greater sway in the volatile re­gion.

When the U.S. forces with­drew, Syria’s Kurds — seek­ing pro­tec­tion from their No. 1 en­emy, Turkey — in­vited Syr­ian govern­ment and Rus­sian forces into parts of north­east­ern Syria where they had not set foot in years. More are now de­ploy­ing along large parts of the bor­der re­gion un­der a Rus­sian-Turk­ish deal, in­clud­ing to at least one for­mer U.S. gar­ri­son in north­ern Syria.

The Ankara agree­ment re­quired Syr­ian Kurds to va­cate a swath of ter­ri­tory in Syria along the Turk­ish bor­der in an ar­range­ment that largely so­lid­i­fied Turkey’s po­si­tion and aims.

Pence hailed the cease­fire as the way to end the blood­shed caused by Turkey’s in­va­sion.

But Syr­ian-led Kur­dish forces say the cease-fire is per­sis­tently vi­o­lated. Fight­ing raged Satur­day be­tween them and Turkey-backed forces out­side the Syr­ian town of Ein Issa, once home to U.S. bases and the Kur­dish ad­min­is­tra­tion.

A se­nior Syr­ian Kur­dish of­fi­cial was crit­i­cal Satur­day of Wash­ing­ton’s lack of re­sponse to Turkey’s vi­o­la­tions of the cease-fire.

Lim­it­ing the U.S. part­ner­ship to mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion over a limited area with the Syr­ian Kur­dish fight­ers, “while con­don­ing the killing of civil­ians, is not a very hon­est re­la­tion­ship and co­op­er­a­tion,” the of­fi­cial, Il­ham Ahmed, said.

On Nov. 13, Trump feted Er­do­gan with a White House visit over the ob­jec­tion of a bi­par­ti­san group of law­mak­ers who ar­gued Er­do­gan should be de­nied the honor of a West Wing visit in the af­ter­math of the in­va­sion and be­cause of his de­ci­sion to pur­chase Rus­sian-made sur­face-to-air mis­siles over the ob­jec­tion of NATO al­lies.

In neigh­bor­ing Syria, af­ter declar­ing the near-com­plete with­drawal of U.S. forces from Syria, Trump de­cided that roughly 800 would stay to keep eastern Syria’s oil fields from fall­ing back into the hands of the Is­lamic State.


Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence serve turkey to troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Satur­day.

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