Kamal Bewar has had trouble sleeping the past week.
From his home in Utah, Bewar has been watching news coverage of the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria. He has been thinking about two brothers who joined Kurdish forces to fight the Islamic State (IS) group there, and the family he has throughout the Kurdish regions of the Middle East.
“We are facing another genocide,” Bewar, 50, said Monday. “Another massacre.”
He feels sadness more than anger. “You feel like you’re being betrayed by your best friend.”
President Donald Trump’s decision to take U.S. troops out of northern Syria is being watched in Utah by Kurdish immigrants and supporters of their efforts to fight IS and install a democracy. Bewar, who is president of the Kurdish Community of Utah, estimates there are 70 to 80 Kurdish families in the state.
Porter Goodman volunteered to serve alongside the Kurdish forces in Syria in 2016. He hopes Congress intervenes before the last U.S. soldiers — who mostly have been there as advisers and to deter an incursion from Turkey — leave.
“The fact that we have a NATO ally,” Goodman said of Turkey, “that is trying to crush a pro-Western democracy in northern Syria really has to make us rethink our foreign policy.”
The Kurdish people are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. They live in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. When a Kurdish military force, first known as the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, and later as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, began fighting IS, the United States was one of the Western countries that supported the Kurds with arms and resources.
It worked. Along with Arab groups, the Kurdish fighters defeated IS. That was one of Trump’s rationales for announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops earlier this month.
But the U.S. soldiers also were deterrents to Turkey and Syria, both of which feared the SDF due to its ties to more radical Kurdish elements that Turkey has called terrorists, and because the Kurds wish to set up their own government in northern Syria.
The government the Kurds were establishing was a democracy that had guarantees for religious freedoms as well as gender equality.
"They are a lot more moderate than other groups in the Middle East,” Goodman said. “They share Western values.”
Goodman served in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, and he got to know some Kurds. He was discharged in 2008.
Then, in 2016, Goodman volunteered to serve alongside the Kurdish forces battling IS. (He says he was not paid and thus should not be called a mercenary.)
"The more I learned about what the Syrian Kurds were building,” Goodman said, “the more impressed I became."
He said he served as a medic but sometimes had to return fire. While there, an improvised explosive device killed another American, Levi Shirley, and wounded Goodman. Now 31, Goodman lives in Provo.
Another Kurdish transplant in Utah, Hilbeen Mohammed, compares the U.S. withdrawal from Syria to what her own family experienced in Iraq. Her father had been a bodyguard for American forces working alongside the Kurds in Iraq.
U.S. troops then left. About a week later in 1997, about midnight, Mohammed said, her family members received a knock on the door saying they had to leave — now — that groups loyal to Saddam Hussein were preparing to kill them. Mohammed said the family spent six months in Guam before being relocated to Utah.
“I feel like it’s a war that will never end,” said Mohammed, now 35 and living in Sandy.
She noted that many of the SDF soldiers were young women. Mohammed had hopes the Kurds in northern Syria could create gender protections that would be a positive influence in the Middle East.
The SDF "were taking the right step until this happened,” Mohammed said of the U.S. pullout, “which is setting them back up to zero and [with] nowhere to go.”
Bewar is also from Iraq. Two of his brothers died with Kurdish forces fighting Saddam, he said. Two other brothers battled the Islamic State group. A cousin died fighting IS.
Bewar came to the United States in 1993 and has lived in Utah most of that time. He has taught the Kurdish language and some Arabic to the U.S. military. He works as a student success coordinator at the Salt Lake Community College campus in Taylorsville, mostly helping immigrants and refugees.
He understands why Trump has the goal of removing soldiers from the Middle East but believes the move will tell American allies they cannot trust the United States.
For the Kurds, Bewar said, it has left them with no leverage to negotiate with Turkey and Syria for peace and democracy.
“What do we have as the Kurds?” Bewar said. “Nothing. We had this fight against ISIS, and now it’s over.”
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