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Lincoln Yazidis fear U.S. withdrawal from Syria will leave vacuum where ‘radical groups can flourish’

By CHRIS DUNKER Lincoln Journal Star


هادي بير
Hadi Pir FRANCIS GARDLER, Lincoln Journal Star file photo

President Donald Trump’s announcement late Sunday that the U.S. would withdraw its forces from Syria could be devastating for the region and the minority groups who live there, a member of Lincoln’s Yazidi community said.

Trump justified the decision in a series of tweets Monday morning, saying it was “time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars” following the defeat of the so-called Islamic State.

The White House also chided European countries for not taking back captured IS fighters from their countries, and said the U.S. would no longer foot the bill to keep them off the battlefield.

Those militants will now be turned over to Turkey, a proposal that has drawn criticism from both Democrats and Republican officials. A rebuke also came from former U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk, who said Turkey did not have the intent, desire or capacity to manage the roughly 60,000 detainees.

Hadi Pir of Lincoln, a former U.S. Army interpreter and co-founder of Yazda, a global organization that formed in 2014 to support the survivors of a genocide by IS against Yazidis, said a lack of American influence could allow the terrorist group to rebuild.

“We’re not only going to leave a vacuum, but a place where these radical groups can flourish,” Pir said. “Without the U.S., it’s going to be just another place where these radical ideas can grow.”

Pir and other Yazidis raised concerns about a similar plan announced by Trump to pull out of northeast Syria earlier this year, saying it would be a mistake on the part of the U.S., as well as a potentially deadly move for minority Yazidis and Christians still living in the Nineveh Plain, which spreads across northern Iraq and Syria.

Yazidis who have lived in the region for thousands of years barely survived an invasion by IS in 2014, which led to the death, enslavement or conversion of thousands of members of the religious minority.

Thousands more Yazidis escaped and have settled in refugee communities in places such as Lincoln, or Germany, Canada or other countries, while thousands more remain living in camps for internally displaced people in the fragile region. Other Yazidis and minority Christians continue to be targeted by Turkish-backed Syrian militias.

Pir said the U.S.’ abrupt withdrawal, announced just ahead of a planned invasion by Turkey’s military and amid violent protests by Iraqis against a corrupt government, would also destroy any trust that coalition groups in the region had built with the American forces.

It also signals to allies they need not conform to U.S. ideals such as religious freedom, justice and democracy in order to secure help to defend themselves, Pir said, kneecapping American influence around the globe.

“They will say ‘Why should we trust them?'” Pir said. “We’re just going to go with whoever gives us weapons and help at the moment.”

That will include the Kurds, Pir said, who have shouldered much of the burden fighting and defeating IS over the last five years. Instead of allying with the U.S., Kurdish-backed groups deemed terrorist organizations by Turkey could turn to Russia or Iran for help, he added.

Members of Nebraska’s federal delegation also signaled their opposition to Trump’s plan to pull back from Syria.

Sen. Ben Sasse said Trump “needs to know that this bad decision will likely result in the slaughter of allies who fought with us, including women and children.”

Sasse urged Trump to reconsider the decision and warned Turkey to consider its status as a member of NATO before conducting any ethnic cleansing of Kurds.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a co-chair of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus who helped lead the effort to formally declare the 2014 IS attack as a genocide, agreed with Trump in that “America cannot keep fighting other peoples’ wars.”

“But we must proceed with great caution in exiting this messy neighborhood to prevent the horror of ISIS 2.0, potential Turkish over-aggression, and a destabilization that endangers religious minorities,” Fortenberry added in a statement.

Pir said religious minorities are already feeling the danger of destabilization — there have been reports of Turkish-backed militias killing Yazidi men and kidnapping women — and a loss of U.S. presence in the region could exacerbate tensions that are already bubbling over.

“I don’t know how much hope the Yazidis and Christians can have,” he said.

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