Syrian Kurds lobbied Congress, Trump to prevent troop withdrawal

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Representatives of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces engaged in a public relations and lobbying push earlier this year to oppose President Donald Trump’s prior decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings revealed by the Center for Responsive Politics’ Foreign Lobby Watch tool.

The U.S. Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Kurdish-led SDF, met with Trump, lawmakers, think tanks, reporters and an administration official during a push to maintain some sort of troop presence in Syria.

The talks with lawmakers took place during Kurdish delegation trips to the United States, the United Kingdom and France to lobby Western leaders to not back out of long-standing military support for Kurdish militias in northern Syria. Kurdish militias like the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, proved an instrumental ground force in the military campaign against ISIS. While these groups control much of the territory once held by ISIS, they fear an attack by Turkey, which considers YPG a terrorist group   

Representatives with the Kurdish delegation held meetings with 10 lawmakers during its visit to Washington, D.C. in late January, according to the filing.

Syrian Democratic Council co-chair Ilham Ahmed held a meeting with a bipartisan group of 8 senators including Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Tim Kaine, (D-Va.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The delegation also met separately with chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Van Hollen. Disclosures say the U.S. withdrawal from Syria was discussed in each of these meetings.

“She was very clear that the political ambition of the Syrian Kurds is to be part of a sort of decentralized system within Syria,” Van Hollen said at the time of his discussions with Ahmed. “What she requested was that there be some U.S. presence remaining in Syria… if not U.S. forces, some kind of international force presence.”

The delegation met with Trump briefly at a dinner with congressional leaders at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, though the meetings are not listed in lobbying disclosures.

“I love the Kurds,” Trump reportedly told Ahmed during a 10-minute discussion, promising he would not allow Turkey to attack Kurdish militias.

Another meeting was held between the delegation and Sam Brownback, the Trump administration’s Religious Freedom Ambassador and former Kansas governor.

Representatives of the delegation also held meetings at the Middle East Institute and the Wilson Center, foreign policy think tanks in Washington, D.C., and two representatives made media appearances with NPR, Vice and Defense Post.

Following extensive pushback from Congress, the Defense Department and allies, Trump eventually agreed to leave 200 troops in Kurdish-held areas of Syria after announcing the withdrawal in a December.

Trump reportedly made the decision to leave some troops behind after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two vowed to continue attempts to create a “safe-zone” in northern Syria. Though the Kurdish delegation in each of its meetings with lawmakers lobbied for the creation of a “safe-zone” in Syria, it wishes to see it facilitated by international troops rather than Turkish ones.

The U.S. Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council stated in its FARA registration it aimed “to serve as a conduit between the U.S government and the Syrian Democratic Council, for the purpose of educating U.S policymakers about the democratic struggle in Syria and the work of the SDC to implement a decentralized, secular, system of federalism in Syria.”

The mission received $60,000 from the Syrian Democratic Council in 2017 to jumpstart its Washington lobbying. Another $8,000 to $10,000 is sent to the mission per month from “various Syrian and Kurdish grassroots supporters in the United States” to support its work, according to filings.

The mission says its legislative agenda is to procure better military equipment for the Syrian Democratic Forces, end “the Turkish occupation of Syria,” increase humanitarian aid to the region and have the ability to open an international airport in northern Syria.

The U.S. sent $800 million in military aid to groups in Syria fighting ISIS like the SDF and YPG in the last two years.

Yet the Syrian Democratic Council’s decision to operate as a foreign agent lobbying the U.S. government has outraged Turkey. In an op-ed distributed by a PR firm working for the Turkish government, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu wrote the Syrian Democratic Council “has stepped up its lobbying for more arms and aid, paid for by U.S. taxpayer dollars. The political arm of a terrorist group seeking to peddle influence in Washington is a shocking state of affairs, and President Trump should move to immediately strip them of their status.”

Armed groups that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces have faced criticism from some international human rights groups. Human Rights Watch accused the YPG last year of recruiting child soldiers. Amnesty International has charged the group with displacing ethnic Arabs and demolishing their villages, in some cases threatening villagers with U.S. airstrikes if they refused to leave. The YPG is also considered the Syrian-wing of the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

As a limited U.S. presence will remain in Syria, support for the Kurds continues to inflame U.S. relations with Turkey. A lobbying presence for Kurdish groups with ties to lawmakers could further complicate future Turkish efforts to diminish U.S. influence in Syria.

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