Vice President Mike Pence made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Nov. 23—the first high-level American visit since President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. forces from Syria—in a bid to reassure the Kurdish allies of the United States in the region.
Pence landed in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, to meet with Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani. The visit was meant to hearten the United States’ regional partners in the fight against the ISIS terrorist group.
The United States is promising to continue to continue to crack down on ISIS and to stop any possible resurgences from occurring. Weeks ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed in a Nov. 14 speech that America is watching the space previously occupied by the ISIS caliphate “like a hawk.”
Pence said both Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces “fought alongside us,” and said he had no doubts about the U.S. commitment to them. “It’s unchanging,” he said. In September, the Trump administration announced the killing of Hamza Bin Laden, the son of Osama Bin Laden, and in March, the ISIS so-called “caliphate” was declared destroyed.
Meanwhile, America is also keeping open its capacity to conduct air operations and has repositioned some troops in northeastern Syria and the broader region to “make sure that ISIS will never get a second wind and to prevent ISIS from re-capturing the oil fields,” Pompeo said in his speech with foreign ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The group was formed by the United States in 2014.
Earlier, Pence received a classified briefing at Iraq’s Al-Asad Air Base, from which U.S. forces are believed to have launched the operation in Syria last month that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Pence also spoke by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
In a sign that American military partnership with Syrian Kurdish forces is ongoing, the U.S.-led coalition announced on Nov. 23 that its forces, including hundreds of Syrian Kurdish commandos, had jointly carried out the largest operation against ISIS in eastern Syria since the U.S. pullback began in early October.
The Nov. 22 operation in southeastern Syria’s Deir el-Zour province captured dozens of ISIS fighters, cleared enemy compounds, and seized weapons and explosives, the U.S.-led coalition said.
Mark Cancian, senior adviser for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Epoch Times on Nov. 24 that the United States needs the Kurds to help fight ISIS and that it doesn’t want to abandon an ally.
“The operations … reinforce the point that ISIS is still around, though much weakened, and that a continuing military partnership with the Kurds is still needed,” he said via email.
Pence’s latest trip was his second to the region in five weeks. Trump deployed him to Ankara, Turkey, last month to negotiate a cease-fire after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched an offensive on U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
In neighboring Syria, after declaring the near-complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, Trump decided that roughly 800 would stay to keep eastern Syria’s oil fields from falling back into the hands of ISIS. Trump also agreed to keep about 150 U.S. troops at a base in southern Syria as a check on Iranian influence in the region.
Pompeo said in his speech earlier this month that one of the actions the coalition should take to limit the chances of an ISIS resurgence is for coalition members to “take back the thousands” of captured terrorist fighters in Iraq and Syria, who had come from their countries, into custody. He said coalition members should “impose accountability for the atrocities that they have perpetrated,” Pompeo said, saying they should be prosecuted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report