During last 30 years, for Kurdish nationalists, the United States was not the “promised land” but the “state of promises”. But today, the US Congress itself sends messages it might provide last refuge for a failing national project.
Since the 1990s, the cause for a Kurdish state advanced well on Washington’s shoulders: Two Gulf War’s resulted in the establishment of a Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. US pressure in the beginning of the millennium opened way for hopes for federal-ethnical division in Türkiye. When the Kurdish guerilla fought against Iran, US (and – of course – Israeli) support was given. And lastly, from 2014 onwards, the United States established, by military intervention, sending arms, providing financing and advises, an autonomous entity in the northeast of Syria, as Şafak Erdem has shown in his article along US documents.
Michael Waltz and Jason Crow have witnessed US nation-building attempts on location.
Today a Republican member in the House of Representatives, Michael Waltz served the US army’s special forces in the rank of Colonel in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa. A Democratic Party Congressman today, Jason Crow also fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and received the rank of Captain.
Both were shocked by the decision of US President Donald Trump to withdraw the troops from Syria announced in October 2019. And they responded. Jason Crow initiated a letter, signed by more than 50 Congress members, criticizing the decision as “dramatically altering our partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)”.
Apparently, they had no confidence in the success of the letter – and introduced together a bill to the House of Representatives (HoR) on October 30th, 2019: The Syrian Partner Protection Act, as the bill H.R. 4873 was named.
Syrian Partner Protection Act of 2019
The bill proposed to introduce the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to Syrians. The United States established the SIV program earlier to evacuate people that worked for the US government as translators and interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Waltz and Crow proposed to extend the program to Syria and “To provide for special immigrant status for Syrian Kurds and other Syrians who partnered with the United States Government in Syria”, as says the bill.
“This sends a very strong message that the U.S. handshake is good, that we protect people who risk their lives to help us accomplish our mission, and there is no greater example of this than the Syrian Democratic Forces,” said Crow.
And both made sure, in Sec 2, (c) of the bill, that “An applicant (…) not be deemed inadmissible based on membership in, participation in, or support provided to, the Syrian Democratic Forces or other partner organizations as determined by the Secretary of Defense”.
Essentially, the bill was a promise of evacuation to the United States for “those who served the United States Government in Syria” – and above all, the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The “Syrian Democratic Forces”: US cover-up for the PKK
The PKK has been one of the main armed organizations of Kurdish nationalism, originating from Türkiye but also operating in Iran, Iraq and Syria with its side organizations.
The Syrian Democratic Forces were founded in 2015.
In 2017, the US General Raymond Thomas, the commander of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), stated he had in person discussed with the YPG changing their name to avoid the PKK marker since the PKK is an internationally recognized as terrorist organization. Thomas was impressed that the YPG included the word “democratic” in their rebrand—they called themselves the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
And the US Secretary of State, Ashton Carter has declared there were “close relations” between the YPG in Syria and the PKK, in 2016.
The United States government still determines the PKK as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” – a definition that closes the door for the immigration of its members to the US. Still, if rebranded as members of the SDF, they might catch a flight to Washington.
The bill’s further career: all over the Congress
Crow and Waltz’ proposal was far from being an individual, possibly sentimental act. Simultaneously, two bills were introduced to the Senate in October 2019: the Syrian Allies Protection Act (S. 2625) and the Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act (S. 2641).
25 Representatives from both Democrats and Republicans cosponsored the Syrian Partner Protection Act, while 13 senators from both parties cosponsored the Syrian Allies Protection Act. The S. 2641 bill received signatures of 20 senators, again from both sides of the aisle.
The bill S. 2641 had a wider range. It stated that “It is the policy of the United States to use the voice and vote of the United States at the United Nations to denounce the targeting of the Kurdish community in northeast Syria”. It even questioned Türkiye’s membership in NATO due its intervention in Syria.
Who gets a chance to apply for an American Special Immigrant Visa?
The proposed bills define exactly who can apply for Priority 2 refugee of special humanitarian concern: These are “Syrian Kurds and other Syrians” who:
– “Were employed by the United States Government in Syria in support of the military or humanitarian mission in Syria” for at least 1 years since January 2014 (S. 2641, 116th Congress);
– Were “employed by a media or nongovernmental organization headquartered in the United States”;
– Were employed by “an organization associated with the United States military and humanitarian mission” and which “received grants from or entered a into a cooperative agreement or contract with the United States government”.
The Special Immigrant Visa Program is open to those who:
– “Were employed by, or on behalf of, the United States Government in a role that was vital for the success of the United States’ Counter ISIS mission in Syria”;
– “Have partnered with, was employed by, or worked together with the United States Government as an interpreter, translator, intelligence analyst or in another trusted capacity” (H.R. 4873, 116th Congress)
– “Provided service to the United States efforts against the Islamic State, which has been documented in a positive recommendation or evaluation”.
The proposed bills established the requirement of positive evaluations from superiors, background checks on the applicant and a general evaluation of the Department of State, Department of Defense and Homeland Security in regard to the concerning organization.
Who are those “employed by the United States Government”, or who “receive a grant” or contract?
The Office of the Secretary of Defense calls it “stipends”: These are paid to local forces in Syria to sustain “areas liberated from ISIS”. Its report projected that “24,000 Vetted Syrian Opposition (VSO) personnel will be receiving stipends by the end of FY 2019”.
The Syrian Democratic Forces comprise the vast majority of these VSO, as newer reports of the office show.
This personnel receives between monthly 100 and 400 US dollars of stipends according to position and performance. The Department of Defense also employs as contractors thousands of people in Iraq and Syria.
As the bills above indicate, the American footprint in the northeast of Syria is not limited to fighting forces. The governmental organization USAID pursues a range of activities from health care to educational systems, from infrastructure to media work. Here, another U.S. government institution employs a number of people. It is worth emphasizing that under the label of “stabilization”, US agencies play a leading role in establishing, maintaining and advancing the Kurdish-dominated Self Administration in the northeast of Syria.
The Lead Inspector General report to the United States Congress provides a good summary on that work.
Thousands of US employees in Syria and immigrant visa for thousands
Official US documents show that the United States Government employes thousands of people in Syria: as fighters within the SDF / PKK, technicians, media workers or advisers.
Hence, the proposed bills have set the immigration numbers high as well: The Syrian Partner Protection Act establishes that yearly, 4000 US employees may apply for the Special Immigrant Visa program – for the duration of 5 years.
Two years later: Same bills back again and more initiatives
But none of these bills introduced in 2019 in the House and the Senate have become law. They were delegated to different subcommittees and waited there.
In the meantime, Türkiye has pursued another operation in Syria, barely stopped by Trump’s interference. Trump lost the elections, Biden came to power, and had to administer a panicky withdrawal of US and allied forces from Afghanistan. Crow and Waltz were watching closely.
And their proposals were not dead. They came back to the congressional agenda in early 2021.
In the House, the Syrian Partner Protection Act was presented in April 21 – this time cosponsored by 7 Democrats and 4 Republicans – of course including again Crow and Waltz.
Moreover, already in February ’21 had been proposed the U.S. Citizenship Act that included the same provisions as the bills before in regards of providing SIV to U.S. collaborators in Syria. That bill, H.R. 1177, received even 153 cosponsors from the Democratic Party.
26 cosponsors introduced the same bill to the Senate in February 2021, numbered S. 348.These bills are currently in the House and Senate legislation process.
But there is even more: Until now, existing SIV programs for Iraq and Afghanistan are approved yearly. But lobby groups demand not only their extension to include Syria, in other words, PKK fighters from its north, but also their permanent establishment.
According amendments were proposed to the National Defense Appropriation Act (NDAA) 2023 – though rejected for the moment.
Evacuation means end of mission
16 members of the House of Representatives – including of course Jason Crow – have already constituted a “Honoring Our Promises Working Group”, focusing currently on U.S. employees in Afghanistan that need evacuation. But as the legislative history shows, are the members ready to engage for Syria as well.
In summary, there is a steady wind blowing in Washington to evacuate those members of the PKK / SDF employed by the U.S. government and have proven themselves as useful.
At the same time, legislation that provides them permanent immigrant visa and evacuates them shows one thing clearly: Their mission is over.
There is already a huge pressure from all sides on the autonomous Kurdish entity in the northeast of Syria. If that pressure increases, another Saigon moment may occur for the U.S. – with a sunset for Kurdish nationalism.