US Central Command says US, SDF to resume anti-ISIS ops in coming days, weeks

The United States plans to resume its operations against ISIS in the upcoming days and weeks with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), U.S. Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie has said, as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Iraq to reassure Iraqi Kurds of U.S. support following Trump's decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria drew criticism that Washington had betrayed its Kurdish allies there.

Duvar English / Reuters

U.S. Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie said on Nov. 23 that about 500 U.S. personnel in east Syria are expected to resume operations with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against ISIS in coming days and weeks.

"Now I've got about 500 U.S. personnel generally east of the Euphrates river east of Deir al Zor up to Hasaka, northeast all the way up into extreme northeast Syria," McKenzie told reporters on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue security summit in Bahrain.

"It is our intention to remain in that position working with our SDF partners to continue operations against ISIS down the Euphrates river valley where those targets present themselves," he added.

ISIS has lost nearly all its territory in Syria and U.S. forces killed its former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month, but the group that once controlled a third of Syria and neighboring Iraq is still seen as a threat.

The administration of President Donald Trump previously shocked U.S. allies by saying Washington was pulling out all its troops from Syria.

It said later it decided to keep a residual force in the northeastern part of the country, focusing on preventing ISIS from staging a comeback and attacking the oilfields there.

Turkey launched and then halted an offensive against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the U.S.-backed SDF that helped the United States defeat ISIS, which it sees as a terrorist group with links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Moscow, the main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said this week it was also in the process of deploying more Russian military police to northeast Syria, setting up field hospitals for civilians, distributing humanitarian aid and rebuilding infrastructure.

Pence visits Iraq to reassure Iraqi Kurds of US support

Elsewhere, Vice President Mike Pence visited Iraq on Nov. 23 to reassure Iraqi Kurds of U.S. support after Trump's decision to withdraw troops.

His trip included a visit with Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, and also a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to discuss the unrest and protests over corruption that have rocked the country.

The visit also served to bolster U.S. troops ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.

Pence made two stops during his short trip, which was previously unannounced for security reasons. Traveling on a military cargo plane, he landed first at Al Asad Air Base northwest of Baghdad and talked by phone with Abdul Mahdi.

“We spoke about the unrest that’s been taking place in recent weeks here in Iraq," Pence told reporters. "He assured me that they were working to avoid violence or the kind of oppression we see taking place even as we speak in Iran.”

“He pledged to me that they would work to protect and respect peaceful protesters as ... part of the democratic process here in Iraq.”

Hundreds have been killed since early October when mass protests began in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Protesters want to dislodge a political class they view as corrupt and beholden to foreign powers at the expense of Iraqis who suffer from poverty and poor healthcare.

The vice president went on to Erbil in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, seeking to show U.S. appreciation for Kurdish sacrifices and affirm a message of U.S. support and partnership with Kurdish fighters.

Pence told Barzani at the beginning of their meeting at Erbil airport that he wanted on Trump's behalf 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 whether he had to smooth over any sense of betrayal from the Kurds, Pence said: “I don’t think there was any confusion now among the leadership here in the Kurdish region that President Trump’s commitment to our allies here in Iraq as well as to those in the Syrian Defense Forces, the Kurdish forces who fought alongside us, is unchanging.”

Pence did not leave the White House's frustration about the impeachment probe at home. During remarks to U.S. troops at the Al Asad Air Base, he made mention of "partisan politics and endless investigations" back in Washington slowing down the ability to get troops the resources that they need.