At Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Portman Voices Concern for Kurdish Allies
WASHINGTON, DC – During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) heard from State Department experts about the impact of Turkey’s recent actions in Syria against our Kurdish allies. Portman voiced his concern for our Kurdish allies and U.S. diplomacy efforts moving forward.
Portman: “First, thank you for your service, Ambassador Jeffrey, you’ve been a stalwart on foreign policy issues including trying to figure out the most complex and volatile part of the world. It’s not easy, it’s a messy situation, no question about it. I see it pretty simply which is that we had a small number of troops there, mostly special operators who were keeping the peace. And it wasn’t perfect, it never is in that part of the world, but we were avoiding some of the problems that we’ve seen and that includes not just the Iranian-backed forces and the Syrians coming in, but the Russians coming in. That video of the Russian journalist, the day after, walking through our base haunts me. And then of course what we’ve done with regard to the Kurds, and I want to ask you a question about that in a moment but to me this is about the Kurds but it’s also about our allies and our potential allies in the future and what impact that will have. And then of course finally, the displacement of more refugees. I mean that area has already seen its share of refugees, hasn’t it? And now there are many more. And then, I guess finally, ISIS and you said that you think only dozens of ISIS fighters have been released. I’ve heard larger numbers but the point is, we have unfortunately found ourselves in a situation where, because of the unsettled nature now of that buffer region, much of what the Kurds were doing to restrain the ISIS fighters and family members and so on has now been disrupted.
“I guess I won’t ask you to agree or disagree with me on that assessment because I don’t want to put you on the spot. You’ve been an able reporter on what you think is happening, you’ve avoided expressing your personal views, but those are mine. On the issue of what does this do to us going forward, I think about Iraq and I think about the role the KRG has played in supporting our efforts there. You know, ever since 1991 we’ve relied on the Kurds haven’t we? And, you know, what’s this going to do in regard to our relationship to the Kurds more broadly, particularly in Iraq, and to those communities, those Arabic and Kurd communities in that part of Iraq and in Northeastern Syria? What will our withdrawal and our actions here do to affect our relationships with those forces and can we continue to work with them?”
Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. Department of State: “That may be a good analogy Senator. You know our partners for many years, the PUK and the KDP – Kurdish parties in Northern Iraq – have decided to have an independence referendum without properly consulting us or getting our views. Well they got our views, we thought this was a big mistake in the fall of 2017. When this happened the Iraqi army moved into a mixed area where the Kurdish regional government had extended its sway after Saddam had fallen in the Kirkuk area. And through some fairly significant fighting, took back the oil-rich providence of Kirkuk. That was a huge blow to the Kurds. They felt we had abandoned them. Our argument was, ‘We never promised you a military guarantee for that area.’ Rather we tried to work out, and I was involved in that as well as others here with me today, trying to do oil deals and other things between the Kurds in the north and the central government in Baghdad. Again, we did not succeed in stopping a conflict from occurring. We did succeed, very quickly, in bringing that conflict to a halt and then bringing the two sides together. So I would say that is an example of how not using military force but using diplomacy and economic and energy tools we can keep a relationship with the Kurds. I know Massoud Barzani very well. I have a good relationship with him today.”
Portman: “Well I hope you’re right. I don’t mean to cut you off but I hope you’re right. But I can’t imagine there’s not an impact here on the Kurds more broadly and on other allies, as I said, around the world. And on future allies who we would want to turn to. You’ve used the term “incentives” a lot today to talk about what was on the table previously. I don’t know if you feel that you are able to talk about those discussions with Turkey but I had always hoped that part of the way that we could solve our problems with regard to Turkey and the Kurds was through commercial activities, specifically trade and their interest in a trade agreement. And I have reason to believe, based on reporting back from folks at the State Department that was a possibility. What happened? Why did the Turks not take us up on our offer to expand trade? You know, we do quite a bit of trade with them on steel already. I know there are new sanctions now in place there and new tariffs. But why didn’t those incentives work and how can they possibly work better going forward, and is that what you’re referring to when you say incentives?”
Mr. Jeffrey: “Absolutely. In a nutshell, this was a very attractive package. And the issue isn’t with the Kurds, some 15 – 20 plus percent of the population is Kurdish and in some elections, a high percentage of them actually vote for President, formerly Prime Minister, Erdoğan’s party. It’s all about what the Turks see is a terrorist organization, the PKK and the offshoot of that in Syria – the Syrian wing of that, if you will, the YPG – which became, for very good reasons that I agreed with at the time and I agree with today, our ally against ISIS. They were the only people who could fight effectively against ISIS at the time. As part of the deal with us, they agreed not to take any actions against Turkey and they have lived up to that agreement. But they were still seen as a latent threat on Turkey’s border just like Israel sees Hezbollah as a latent threat on its border, even though there’s only been one incident - and it was very recent – since 2006 with Hezbollah on Israel’s border. So, that’s the point I made in my oral testimony that major states in a region neighboring an area where we have forces have their own vote in any conflict and they will look towards their existential concerns. We think they made the wrong assessment. We think they could have eventually had a better relationship with this wing of the PKK. In fact, they had been in negotiations or discussions with them up until 2015 in Ankara. We wanted to see if they could get back to that level, thus we did this joint patrolling with the Turks inside Syria in these YPG areas with the YPG pulling back, they were basically the silent third partner. We had a deal going. In October President Erdoğan of the Turkish government, in a sense, decided ‘We’re not going to go with this anymore. We don’t care anymore about the incentives. We’re want to go in and deal with this problem.’ We’re looking into, of course, why they decided to do that. We think it was a big mistake and as I said earlier, they are not more secure today, we are not more secure today, no one is more secure today because of that action.”
Portman: “And none of the incentives were implemented. In other words, there was no upside.”
Mr. Jeffrey: “The incentives now are in play. We’ll have to see how our relations with Turkey can continue on. I think we have the fellow who has the enviable job – I have the enviable job of Syria, he has the enviable job of Turkey.”
Mr. Matthew Palmer, U.S. Department of State: “Thank you for that, Ambassador. To add to that Senator, the Turkish government President Erdoğan is certainly interested in expanding the trade relationship with the United States. He made that very clear. We’ve had talks with the Turks about enhancing and building on the trade relationship, targeting $100 billion a year in annual trade. That’s a very ambitious target but there were conversations in play about how it is that we might approach that target. At the end of the day, as we look at it, although Turkey was very interested in this package also felt that what was going on in northeast Syria represented a significant security threat and made a decision that was a security decision rather than an economic commercial decision. But we do look forward to the opportunity to restore a sufficient measure of balance to the U.S. – Turkey relationship that we can go back to discussions about the mechanisms through which we can expand and strengthen the trade and commercial relationship.”
Portman: “I’d like to think that’s on the table to try and resolve this issue.”