WASHINGTON — Two senators — one who represents the largest population of Kurds in the U.S. and the other a combat-wounded Iraq veteran — are urging President Donald Trump to protect Kurdish fighters in Syria after American troops withdraw.
In a letter obtained by Defense News dated Jan. 31, 2019, Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., called on Trump to prevent a war between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces who fought alongside the U.S. against the Islamic State group.
“If the United States is to avoid endless deployments of ground forces throughout the world, we must continually cultivate reliable partners in the region who are willing — and able — to effectively take the fight to our common enemy on the ground,” the letter reads. “Abandoning friends and doing nothing to prevent their slaughter would undermine the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and jeopardize our nation’s honor.”
The letter follows reports the U.S. is seeking to broker an agreement that prevents Turkey from following through on its threats to launch a full-scale military offensive against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. Turkey sees the forces as an offshoot of Kurdish rebels inside Turkey.
Trump reportedly met Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed at a political fundraiser in Washington on Monday. Asked whether he would let the Kurdish fighters be attacked, Trump reportedly said he would make sure they are protected, adding: “I love the Kurds.”
The issue has united Blackburn and Duckworth, who are both newcomers to the Senate Armed Services Committee this session of Congress. A frequent critic of Trump on national security issues, Duckworth previously pushed back on the president’s justification for a withdrawal from Syria — that ISIS is defeated.
Blackburn has been a voice on issues impacting Kurds overseas for years. Until January, Blackburn held a House seat representing the suburbs of Nashville, which has more Kurdish residents than any other city in the U.S., about 15,000. She was a co-chair of the Kurdish-American Caucus.
The Nashville community reportedly grew as Kurds fled the Kurdish-Iraqi wars in the 1970s, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and the Syrian civil war most recently.
The letter comes as the Senate is set to vote Thursday on a measure from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that’s seen as a rebuke of Trump’s decision to pull back troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
McConnell, R-Ky., sponsored an amendment to a Middle East policy bill that he said would acknowledge "al-Qaida, ISIS and their affiliates in Syria and Afghanistan continue to pose a serious threat to us here at home.”
“It would speak directly to our allies and reassure our local partners who are doing the bulk of the fighting against a shared enemy," McConnell said in a floor speech on Monday. "Simply put, while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done. And we know that left untended, these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.