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Pence works to reassure Kurdish allies in surprise Iraq trip

Vice President Mike Pence greets attendees prior to a National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Vice President Mike Pence greets attendees prior to a National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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 cease-fire 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.

Pence said he welcomes “the opportunity on behalf of President Donald Trump to reiterate the strong bonds forged in the fires of war between the people of the United States and the Kurdish people across this region.”

Asked 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.

A senior U.S. official said Pence’s visit was also meant to assure the many Americans who have long supported the region’s Kurds that the Trump administration remained committed to the alliance. And the visit was designed to show Pence’s focus on foreign policy as Washington is gripped by the drama of impeachment.

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.