Interview with U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, Sponsor of Resolution on Genocide by ISIS

JeffFortenberry

Exclusive Interview by Dakhil Shammo – VOA Kurdish Service:

U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska’s 1st Congressional district talks to Dakhil Shammo of VOA about the Yazidi plight, the war against ISIS and the roles of the U.S. and the Kurds in the region.

Here KT publishes a transcript along with the video of the interview:

DS: You have said that the security risks of the Middle East migrant crisis must be confronted and resolved to keep the world safe. What should be done to make the world safer without harming US values and principles?

JF: Well, it is a hard question, it is a complicated question, but at a level of first principle if you will, persons have to have their lives protected; that is a fundamental aspect of human dignity and it’s also essential to the principles of civilization itself. So the responsible nations of the world, the United States with partner countries, must try to attack the root causes of what is causing so many people to have to flee their homes. The United States shouldn’t do this alone nor can we do it alone. It is particularly incumbent in the Middle East for Sunni Arab nations to fight for values, to fight for the protection of innocent lives, to fight for the principles of civilizations and stability and order itself. So this is why the horrific manifestation of persons having to flee for their lives and leave their homes has left all of these questions somewhat unanswered.

But as an immediate concern, you have to try to take care and position people as close to where they came from as possible. And then you have to work on the ultimate political, economic and security settlements that create stability and the right of return to people who have had to flee and for the future of their participation in governance structures for their own safety and well-being. This is what’s so tragic, particularly about the loss and the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East because ISIS’s systemic attempt to exterminate them.

DS: I am reading between the lines that you are suggesting to create a safe zone in the region? 

JF: I have proposed and talked publicly about the possibility of a safe haven, particularly in the Nineveh Plain area, that would have its own type of security apparatus tied perhaps to the Peshmerga and the Kurdish government with some type of linkage as well to the Iraqi central government. In that way this sub-autonomous region if you will can create stability for people who have had to flee with only the clothes on their back, the ability to return and build out a thriving culture and thriving society that has existed before, that has co-existed with multiple religious confessions. If we don’t do this and the Middle East is emptied of people simply because there is security and cultural conflict then there is no chance in the future for it. That’s why this proposal is so important. It not only meets the needs of the humanitarian crisis but it creates the long-term conditions for stability.

DS: The Syrian refuge crisis is becoming an international crisis. President Obama announced a plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees despite terrorist attacks in Europe and here in the United States. What strategy should the US adopt to handle this crisis?

JF: Well again, the first order strategy is what we are already doing in providing substantial assistance, approximately 1 billion dollars of assistance, to the Kurdistan government, to the Iraqi government, to the Jordanians, to Turkey, as well as Lebanon to help take care of the migrants and refugees. Second, you’re trying to contain ISIS’s advance and the slaughter and mayhem that they’ve created in Syria as well as Iraq. That has to be further developed though with partnering countries, particularly the Sunni-Arab world, to stop the slaughter. After that, then you have, and in a parallel fashion, the discussion and the ultimate solution through security, economic, and political settlement, both in Syria as well as in Iraq, that will allow the full participation of persons who have had to flee and have had their rights not only protected and their lives protected but the possibility of them being engaged in political structure. So the actual smaller question is about refugees for those persons who are in dire circumstances and who need to be relocated. The larger questions have to involve the structures.

The are about 2,000 refugees who have been approved or have been already on their way. The larger question is creating some very deep concerns as to whether our security screen processes are robust enough. The House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would try to address this because we have concerns that if persons who are intent on using their so-called religion to kill and take other peoples’ religion away, as we’ve seen with ISIS, they don’t belong in America.

DS: The ISIS  atrocity against the Yazidis was designated as a genocide by the Congress and by the State Department. What action do you suggest comes after that?

JF: It’s an interesting question because we were able to pass the genocide resolution of the House of Representatives 393 to zero, which is a remarkable trans-partisan statement that no one disagreed. Because, again, this is about transcendent principles: the right to life, protection of human dignity, the principles of civilization itself. It was really a very strong moment and in fact, as the Yazidi community in Lincoln Nebraska where I live told me,  “It brought smiles to our face. We still have the scars and the pain of the unresolved conflict but this gave us hope”. So many people have said that, particularly those who are still there in the region under grave threat. What it does, the genocide resolution and then the subsequent declaration by Secretary of State Kerry, it puts the full weight and authority of the United States government in declaring the reality of what is happening: a systemic attempt to exterminate entire groups of people based upon their faith. This is wrong and it’s unjust and it creates the gateway for further policy considerations about what we just talked about earlier: the right of return, the reintegration of ancient faith traditions back into their ancient homeland and how those people will be protected and better allowed to participate in governance structure so that this can never happen again. Those are unanswered questions but the policy debate is continuing am I am so thankful that the genocide resolution served as a marker and therefore the gateway to integrate this principle into the larger discussions of the security and economic settlement in the Middle East.

DS: There were suggestions by many experts — for example, last week at a hearing here in the House — about a sort of program to bring victims of the ISIS atrocities and genocide here to the United States, to at least save those victims. Is there any effort in this regard in the House of Representatives?

JF: We do have a refugee resettlement policy and persons again can meet the test for refugee resettlement because of persecution. And so there’s a process by which people have go through and it takes a very long time frankly. So those processes are already in place. Now the expansion of that and the security concerns particularly about Syrian refugees — we don’t want anyone to slip through here who could be in any way affiliated with ISIS — is a legitimate and real concern. So we tend to focus all of our concern and effort on the migration portion of this and the refugee portion of this. The more fundamental questions, while we’ll continue to do that for people who have legitimate and dire needs to be relocated, is to create the conditions in which people can stay in their homeland.

DS: The reason I am asking this question is when we ask the government they say there should be legislation in the Congress so that it can act.

JF: Well first of all, this morning I met with a number of new Americans, people who have come here, immigrated here, and are proud to be American citizens. Ask yourself the question: why do people want to come to America? Something we never talk about. Why? This is ultimately it’s a values proposition. The ability to find oneself and actualize the self in economic activity, through freedom of worship, through freedom of speech, to be able to affect the political system. There are people, certain people around the world, who do not accept those values and they will actually come into such systems, use the freedom in order to take the freedom away from others. They don’t belong in America. Persons who want to come here, rebuild their lives, make a contribution, live freely, worship, help themselves and their neighbor and participate in the American system. That is the hallmark of the values of this country. It gets more difficult because there are capacity limits that America has and other countries. You have to prioritize based upon the circumstance that people are in, and then again, as a world leader, joining with other countries, this has to be done. This question is one that has to be worked on while the first question is resolved. What is causing people to flee? And that’s the deeper crisis.

DS: What suggestion do you have that the next US president should adopt in the Middle East to win the war against ISIS? 

JF: Well the Iraqi central government has to regenerate itself. It has to respect the values of inclusiveness so that certain segments of Iraqi society do not feel excluded from its power segments. America has sent troops back into Iraq, in order to help stabilize its military effort. I would like to see and I would advise the next president that Sunni Arab world’s participation must be more robust. I do not accept the proposition that we should immediately put thousands and thousands of American troops into Syria in order to — and Iraq — to defeat ISIS. This is a responsibility of the Middle East itself. We can help lead but it has to be in strong partnership with those who actually have to solve the problem for the long term.

DS: But ISIS is becoming an international problem, not only a problem of Iraq and Syria.

JF: Well you have a complex question with a complex set of answers. You have a diplomatic front, you have a military front, and then you have these larger questions of values and reshaping the entire political construct in the Middle East. On the diplomatic front, you continue to press for ceasefire and the conditions in which Assad would be transitioned out of governance, with a replacement for the vacuum that would be left, hopefully a replacement government that is inclusive and respectful of minority rights and that can look toward the future and somehow miraculously heal the past. Now this can’t be done when you have eighth century barbarians, ISIS, running around slaughtering people and looking to expand its territory. So the first order proposition obviously is to defeat them, and in a parallel fashion be working on the political and security settlement, and re-framing of governance structures, that allows for a transition of governance in Syria, that hopefully is replaced by a just form of governance. But to simply demand that Assad go, and create a vacuum, could make the circumstances worse. To protect Assad and his brutality is unconscionable. So you have to have a transition period here. Again, the Sunni Arab world should be actively involved with that and, obviously, the Russians must now be involved as well.

DS: In the last two years the US government has cooperated directly with the Kurds and they consider the Peshmarga and the Kurdish forces in Syria are the most effective forces on the ground against ISIS. Yet the US still does not have a clear vision on the question of political support for the Kurds? 

JF: I know a lot of people in Kurdistan will see this. And so let me tell you directly, I want to say thank you to the Kurdish people. The foreign minister sat in my office here and told me a long time ago, “We are fighting for two things. We’re fighting against ISIS and we are fighting for values”. And look at what the Kurdish people have done by absorbing large, vast numbers of refugees from the region. Trying to provide appropriate shelter and stability for them, that is a values proposition. That has been realized by America, and the Kurdish contribution to helping to fight ISIS, and the great sacrifices that the Kurdish people have taken on through the Peshmerga have been recognized here. I think you will see more and more interest in strengthening the Peshmerga, and strengthening the Kurds’ ability to protect not only themselves but the region. I think this is helpful in terms of determining how to regenerate the Iraqi central government as well, so hopefully it finds a better balance. But, to your question, I want to first of all say thanks to the Kurdish people for being willing to sacrifice for those who are in vulnerable positions, and being able and being willing to sacrifice in the fight against ISIS.

DS: But there were calls from the Congress for direct support for the Kurds, not through the Baghdad government, yet it never happens?

JF: I have heard directly from the Kurdish government and I think that is a fair consideration. We must directly support the Peshmerga as best as we can. The Peshmerga have been on the front lines, they have saved innocent lives and, again, the Kurdistan area has absorbed large numbers of refugees. It’s only fair to help the Kurdish government directly. We want to of course work through the delicate, fragile tie so that it is not disruptive with the Iraqi central government. But I agree with the proposition that direct assistance to the Kurdish government and its fight against ISIS is beneficial not only to Yezidis and Christians, but potentially to Syrians and potentially as well to the Iraqi central government.

DS: You are a co-chair of the Religious Minorities Caucus and you represent America’s largest Yezidi community in your town. Last Saturday you were celebrating the Yezidis’ New Year. Tell me about that community. Has this community been integrated into the US?

JF: It’s an amazing community and, just over the last few years, people have become aware that the largest refugee population of Yezidis is in my hometown Lincoln, Nebraska. Over a thousand people live there, 250 families or so. I’m proud that they call Lincoln, Nebraska their new home. On Saturday we had an event in which they just simply wanted to thank me for helping lead the genocide resolution effort. People greeted me with warm hearts and open arms and there was an immediate bond of friendship. I told the television camera that was there, I said it’s a great day to be an American. Look at people have come here who fled violence. By the way, many of the Yazidi members of the community there in Nebraska stood side by side our American troops in Iraq at the height of the war and did the translating for them and put themselves at great risk and in turn earned their citizenship to America. And that’s why they settled here. So I was proud to stand with them in solidarity and thank them for becoming new Americans, thank them for what they did for American troops when they were still in the Nineveh Plane and other areas. And also to celebrate with them the Yezidi New Year and understand more about this unique faith tradition. By the way, the Yezidi red in the Yezidi flag is the same color of the University of Nebraska football team, Cornhusker Reds, a similar color — so it was an immediate connection! It was a wonderful day.

The Yezidis have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS and we all remember the Mount Sinjar incident a year and a half ago when America came in and created the airstrikes. I know you were instrumental as well in pleading with the American government to please act.  During that month of August before the airstrike I had a number of these young men, military translators, come in my office and say, “Congressman, please act, do something, there is no more time”. On the verge of tears. On the verge of anger and I don’t blame them for the anger because their mothers, their aunts, their sisters were trapped and were about to die. So America intervened, and I commend President Obama for doing so, and then the hard work has begun to try to build a fragile coalition to defeat ISIS. Not only has ISIS  targeted Yezidis, as we mentioned earlier it has tried to exterminate Christians and other religious minorities. And the persons who have died the most at their hands are innocent Muslims. That’s why this is such a tragedy not just for the sake of the freedom of the religion, it’s a tragedy for civilization and the principles of freedom itself.

But we did have a momentary pause on Saturday where we’d come together for the Yezidi New Year, and eat way too much food. I  encouraged one of the Yezidis and said “you need to open a restaurant”. Delicious food.  Interestingly I  was at the gym myself that Sunday night, I  played some ball and went to the weight room, and a young man came running over to me and said, “Are you Congressman Fortenberry?” I said, “Yes”. He said, “This is so great what you’ve done with the Yezidis”. I said “Did you see a television news spot?” He said, “Yes I saw it”. Just another young man in the community becoming aware of who the Yezidis are and joining in the celebration from afar through television as the Yezidi community celebrates its new American values.

DS: Congressman, thank you so much.

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