Veterans Day is an opportunity to recognize those who have admirably served in uniform. It should not be lost upon Americans, however, that many people in foreign lands have also risked their safety and that of their loved ones in defense of American interests. For that reason, it is tragic that the United States recently abandoned Kurds and others we partnered with in Syria who have done so much for U.S. forces in the fight against ISIS. Still, Congress has an opportunity to curb the harm, and it should move swiftly to do so.
One of the greatest strengths of the United States has long been its ability to work closely with allies to confront shared threats. And America is at its best when allies can trust it to support them through thick and thin. Yet the decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. forces from northeastern Syria with no responsible plan in place has opened the door for Turkish-backed forces to commit atrocities against our Kurdish allies and for hostilities against others who have supported the United States, violating the trust that took years to build and snubbing the sacrifices they made as part of the counter-ISIS effort.
We both have firsthand experience with the value provided by America’s friends in wartime—host-nation forces and local citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. They have fought alongside U.S. troops against groups such as the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS. They have acted as interpreters to help U.S. forces communicate with local populations. They have served as intelligence sources, often providing critical information to enable U.S. missions. They have provided logistical support, which may not be as glorious but is no less important. And without doubt, they have taken on these roles at great risk to themselves and their families. Indeed, a great number of them have been killed while supporting or fighting alongside American troops.
Similarly, our Kurdish allies and others in Syria trusted the United States and took an enormous risk to fight alongside and otherwise support American forces in the counter-ISIS effort. Their bravery made them a target. But they did this believing America offered them their best hope. And they made this choice at least in part because they believed in America’s credibility.
We should make no mistake—abandoning our allies has very real consequences, not just in Syria but also around the world with friends and foes alike. The U.S. government—including its diplomatic corps, military and intelligence community—cannot reasonably expect other nations or foreign citizens to trust us if we’re seen to be abandoning allies we promised to defend. And when the United States suddenly betrays vulnerable allies, it is a strategic boon for America’s enemies, as we can be more easily portrayed as unreliable partners. As Jon Finer, who was chief of staff and director of policy planning at the State Department during the Obama administration, and Brett McGurk, who was the special presidential envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIS during the Obama and Trump administrations, recently wrote, “America’s partners around the world are watching closely to see if we still stand by those who stood with us.”
Against this backdrop, Congress must act. To help mitigate the catastrophe in Syria, Congress can and should take meaningful action. It has done so before. In the midst of previous U.S. troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress stepped up and passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act and the Afghan Allies Protection Act, creating legal pathways to safety in the United States for our threatened partners.
Now, Congress should pass comprehensive legislation mirroring the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act to provide these same options for our Kurdish partners and others in Syria who are in danger. To that end, several members of Congress have offered legislative proposals. Among these proposals is a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) and Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fl.), who both served in U.S. Army special operations. As Rep. Waltz stated, “The Syrian Kurds have stood side by side with the United States in the fight against ISIS . . . Our Kurdish allies put their lives and the lives of their families on the line, risking retaliation, to help us fight terrorism. They deserve our country’s gratitude.”
These legislative proposals, including a separate bipartisan proposal from Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), either collectively or in certain individual ways would help to protect our partners and restore some measure of trust in America. Congress must now unify in a bipartisan manner, like it has before, to ensure these allies have a way to seek safety and a better life in the United States.
Image: A coalition member hangs an 81-millimeter mortar prior to launching it at a known ISIS location near the Iraqi-Syrian border, May 13, 2018. The coalition provided fire support and airstrikes to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces as they continued Operation Roundup, the military offensive to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and liberate all land east of the Euphrates River. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster