A Reckoning in Syria and What it Means for the Middle East

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Bob Schieffer: I'm Bob Schieffer.

Andrew Schwartz: And I'm Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic And International Studies and this is the Truth Of The Matter.

Bob Schieffer: This is the podcast where we break down the policy issues of the day. Since the politicians are having their say, we will excuse them with respect and bring in the experts, many of them from the CSIS, people who have been working these issues for years.

Andrew Schwartz: No spin, no bombast, no finger pointing, just informed discussion.

Bob Schieffer: To get to the truth of the matter on the ongoing conflict in Syria and its implications for the greater Middle East region, we'll talk today with Brian Katz. He is a fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic And International Studies. He joined CSIS after a decade of service in the U.S. government, first at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. At the CIA, he served as a military analyst for the Middle East, South Asia and Eastern Europe, including multiple overseas tours.

Thank you so much for joining us today. And the way we try to handle this broadcast is simply break it down so people understand what's at stake and what's at stake for who. So if you would, just start out by giving us your picture of where this whole situation is in the Middle East today. Because we've been treated this week to seeing U.S. forces flying the American flag high as people on the side of the road were throwing rotten eggs and rotten vegetables out at them. This is not a pleasant sight for Americans. So where is this situation today?

Brian Katz: I think it's helpful to understand the situation today to go back, I think 2014 was a really critical year for the United States and our interests in Syria. At that point you had what were sort of two conflicts in Syria, or at least the way U.S. policy makers like to bifurcate the conflict into digestible chunks. The first was the civil war, primarily the war between Bashar Al Assad and his foreign backers, Russia and Iran versus the Syrian opposition largely taking place in Western Syria. In Eastern Syria, by 2014 you had this dramatic rise of ISIS. So ISIS previously had been Al Qaeda in Iraq, remained an insurgency after the U.S. withdrawal there in 2010, sort of biding its time for resurgence. That was the Syrian civil war, where they were able to gain steam very quickly in Eastern Syria and by 2014 become really an army, an army operating almost in a conventional way, trying to seize territory. And then what was unique, I think in the history of terrorist groups, is not only did they seek to sow terror, they sought to govern that territory as well, the so called caliphate.

So in 2014, as ISIS was rolling Iraq and Syria, the United States made the decision that one, we needed to intervene to stop this. Iraq was easy because we had a partner there. The Iraqi security forces and the central government in Baghdad to work by with and through. In Syria, it was a trickier question because the U.S. on the opposite side of the government in Damascus in the civil war, but still not wanting to send 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 or a 100,000 of our own troops at that time to go intervene, needed a local partner force. And that force was the YPG, the peoples' protection units, largely Kurdish militia in Northern Syria. So the U.S., seeing this situation on the ground in Eastern Syria decided that that would be the force that we partnered with.

So flash forward between 2014, '15, '16, '17 to today, you saw the U.S. slowly but surely build up the capabilities of that Kurdish group, put them under this broader umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, which included Arab elements and other minority groups in Northeast Syria under this broad fold. That was the force that went and took Raqqa, the capital of the Caliphate, back from ISIS and the force that completed those missions across Eastern Syria, down the Euphrates river to the Iraq border.

Now, the situation we face today was that as ISIS was largely defeated as a military force, as we said, that Caliphate that was trying to govern and hold territory, they were already beginning to re-emerge as an insurgency. Again, going back to their roots as Al Qaeda in Iraq before the Syrian war and before they gained steam. And we've seen over the last year, both in Syria and Iraq, a steady uptick in guerrilla attacks by ISIS. They're not dumb. They learned their lessons from trying to stand and hold territory against the almighty power of the U.S. Air Force and our intelligence capabilities. And they lost a lot of lives. So they moved to these rural areas, these safe havens, and had been biding their time to come back.

So that was the situation we had in September before the call between President Trump and President Erdogan. And SDF, largely in control in Eastern Syria, an Assad regime that ultimately wanted that territory back but wouldn't make an effort as long as U.S. forces were there, not wanting to risk confrontation and then ISIS already beginning to re-emerge, and a very tough mission ahead for those SDF, even with the U.S. true presence staying.

Bob Schieffer: So this, and I want to just stay on this for just a minute. This is so different from when we went to Iraq and sent thousands of American troops there to basically do the fighting. We let this Kurdish force do the ground fighting. We furnished them intelligence, we furnished them air power, which obviously was crucial to the mission. But basically we let somebody else do the fighting on the ground, which this Kurdish force was happy to do. The result was we didn't have very many forces on the ground there. Just advisors. The result was we didn't have very many American casualties. The Kurds suffered perhaps 10,000 casualties. Is that about right?

Brian Katz: That's right. We had 10,000 SDF, including Kurdish and Arab and other ethnic groups in Eastern Syria, killed and tens of thousand more in casualties. We had six U.S. forces killed.

Bob Schieffer: So basically they carried the brunt of this attack.

Brian Katz: They served our infantry.

Bob Schieffer: And going back to the purpose, this was to destroy ISIS, which had been Al Qaeda before. This was the terrorist group that had posed a great threat to America. And these terrorist groups were the reason we went to Iraq, which obviously didn't come out quite the way we wanted it to. But this was totally different. So where are the Kurds right now? How is this opposition to ISIS right now?

Brian Katz: Exactly right. The high point of U.S. intervention in Syria was 2,000 troops compared to 100,000 in the Afghanistan War on 120,000 in Iraq at the peak of that war. 2,000 to 100,000. Largely focused on training, advising and assisting those local Kurdish forces. And then the U.S. using its advantages in technology and air power to provide close air support, to provide intelligence support so those Kurdish forces know where to go and go after the ISIS threat. Provide them logistical support as they went deeper and deeper into Syria.

So those Kurdish forces, primarily from core areas of Northern Syria along the Turkish border, which I'm sure we'll talk about why Erdogan wanted to push into those areas of Northeast Syria. And because there were no real alternatives in terms of operational capability compared to the YPG, the U.S. and our global coalition decided to continue with the YPG, and then as it became the Syrian Democratic Forces, to push further and further down South the Euphrates River, further and further East towards the Iraq border. So by the end of the counter ISIS campaign, which ended this past March over in this tiny town in Eastern Syria called Baghuz, this SDF was controlling one third of Syrian territory, a massive amount. Including some of the key resources in terms of oil and gas that Syria has overall. Very important for the future of that country and just key strategic areas as well, this city that's going to become a flashpoint called Deir ez-Zor in the Southeast as well.

So currently those SDF forces are all over those places in Syria, continuing with the counter ISIS mission. Again, because while the United States may have stopped its mission in Syria, ISIS has not stopped its mission and it's continuing attacks every day. However, because of the Turkish incursion, the Kurdish elements at SDF had to pull some numbers, some manpower from those more far flung places in Southeast Syria and pull them North to try to check this Turkish incursion.

So the Kurds are fighting on two sides. They have to fight with insufficient manpower, both Turkey to the North and ISIS everywhere and around them across Eastern Syria. It's a really terribly difficult mission for them.

Bob Schieffer: I want to bring Andrew in, but let me just ask you one more question because I want to go back and underline this. The president has talked about this being a fight or two forces arguing over some land. That's not why the United States was there. It's my understanding we were there because we saw ISIS as a threat to our national security and we encouraged the Kurds to help us in wiping them out.

Brian Katz: Yeah. So the U.S.-Turkish relationship vis-a-vis Syria has been a deeply contentious one since 2014 when the United States wanted to check ISIS, but was looking for a local regional partner to serve as the ground force. The U.S. was part of many of the discussions, repeatedly asked Turkey if they had local Syrian, primarily Arab forces that could serve as the ground force to partner with the United States to go to feed ISIS. Now, to the Turks credit, they did identify some forces that were capable and willing to do it. However, what those Syrian opposition forces wanted to do is not only fight ISIS but fight the Assad regime. And this caused a great debate in the Obama administration was, okay, we can partner with these forces, but if they want to fight Assad and we don't want to fight Assad, we want to focus on ISIS, is that going to distract from the ISIS mission? Or worse, drag the U.S. military into a conflict with the Assad regime, with Russia and with Iran.

That was a real complicating factor. At the same time, you had these Kurdish forces who are not really showing the motivation to fight, but real capability. There's a town that's in the headlines now Kobani in northeast Syria on the Turkish border. You might recall in late 2014, early 2015 the Kurdish forces there had this sort of brave last stand while they were besieged by ISIS. That was the moment where the U.S. intervened, inserting small numbers of special operators and then applying air power to try to save that town of Kobani. The U.S. goes forward with this partnership with these Kurdish groups, doesn't go with the option that Turkey had provided working with Syrian opposition fighters. Turkey views those Kurdish forces, the YPG as the Syrian affiliate of the Turkey's Kurdistan Workers party or PKK.

In reality, those relationships are very close between the Syrian YPG and the Turkish PKK. From the beginning, going back to 2014 President Erdogan had signaled that he was uncomfortable with this partnership between the U.S. and the Kurds, and that ultimately whenever it was going to be, the U.S. was going to draw down in Syria and ultimately withdraw, there was going to be a reckoning. That reckoning unfortunately happened with no planning and very precipitously two weeks ago based on that phone call.

Bob Schieffer: All right, Andrew.

Andrew Schwartz: Bob, thanks for bringing me in. Brian, this is a fascinating discussion on so many fronts, but I want to ask you, you mentioned that the Kurds controlled one third of Syria. Describe what that actually means, controlling one third of Syria. It's really a form of self-rule, isn't it?

Brian Katz: Exactly. The Kurds from early on in the Syrian civil war had this vision of creating what Kurds in northern Iraq have, which is their own sort of semi-autonomous state and in eastern Syria. They call it Rojava. They had declared Rojava 2013, 2014 in a few key cities in the north. And from the Kurdish perspective, they view the counter ISIS campaign as not only a means defeat their enemy ISIS, but to expand that Rojava and as they did, as the campaign against ISIS picked up steam across eastern Syria, that expanded the territory that came under the SDF's or really the leadership of it is the Kurd's Kurdish control.

Andrew Schwartz: And like in northern Iraq, they created civil society.

Brian Katz: Yeah. Kurdish forces, and this gets to some of the challenges that should the U.S. have remained in Syria to continue training the SDF, some of the challenges that the mission was going to face. And that is while the SDF had been making steady improvements in these territories that they had captured, in establishing local governing councils, in establishing local military councils, incorporating more Arab elements from local tribes and local militias into that broad SDF umbrella, there was still a challenge, which is that as you move into these more really core Arab territories of eastern Syria, they viewed the Kurds coming in as the imposition of outside rule. Not as bad as Bashar al-Assad, not as bad as the Turks or another country. They were fellow Syrians. But again, Kurds, not Arabs ruling them after they had had some degree of autonomy after declaring their revolution against the Assad regime.

This was an ongoing effort to try to train the SDF political leaders on how to govern this territory. I think over the last year they had made some real progress. The challenge now is that without that U.S. support and with those local political and military leaders, one, having all these distractions of having to fight both Turkey and ISIS and two, what will surely be ISIS efforts to start intimidating those local Arab leaders to flip to their side. And if they don't, and we're already starting to see it, assassination campaigns targeting local Arab rulers in eastern Syria who had worked with the Kurds as collaborators with the Kurds. And now that it looks like the Kurds are going to be compelled to make some type of, excuse the phrase, quid pro quo, with the Syrian regime, that is just going to further instill a degree of anger among those Arab communities that too rebelled against the regime of Assad.

It's terribly complicated, but bottom line is that the SDF with U.S. support had made real progress on being able to govern this multiethnic area, but that is now going to be much more difficult without that U.S. advisory presence and all of the pressures those Kurdish groups are going to be facing.

Andrew Schwartz: What does this say for the broader Middle East? For instance, the KRG in northern Iraq, Kurdish Regional Government who helped us stabilize Iraq and continue to help us stabilize Iraq and in return we've provided security for them. What does that say to the Kurds in northern Iraq? And what are the implications that the United States might have going forward?

Brian Katz: I think for the Kurdistan Regional Government, northern Iraq and their primary fighting force, the Peshmerga who's received U.S. training and assistance for decades now, they like the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, very much wanted a U.S. presence, wanted our military support and even our political support for their ambitions and dreams for autonomy. But I think the Kurds of northern Iraq now will look across the border to Syria and see the risk of abandonment that just occurred over in Syria. And thankfully for now, we haven't seen indications that the U.S. is planning to reduce its presence up in the Kurdistan area. But that said, we've just seen an instance where that decision isn't made by the local country. It's made in Washington here and not based on a sort of carefully designed and choreographed inter agency process with bipartisan support like many of our military operations, but decision made by one person very quickly without maybe thinking through and understanding all of the first, second and third order effects.

Bob Schieffer: Well, let me just ask you a broad question. Is the world safer or more dangerous as a result of these recent events?

Brian Katz: I think pretty objectively in the next few years, the world will be less safe because of these events and that's primarily because, again, not just the U.S., we had British and French forces on the ground with us over the last year and before that a global coalition of dozens of countries committed to this fight against ISIS. We are removing one of the more effective counter terrorism forces in history, just pulling it up very abruptly. At the same time, again, we discussed earlier, ISIS was already beginning to resurge as an insurgency. With the Kurds now distracted fighting the Turks, that leaves that local counter terrorism force less capable than it was but without the greatest counter terrorism force that's ever been assembled.

Andrew Schwartz: There'd actually been talk about adding more troops. The Northern Syria for the United States to help bolster counter ISIS efforts, hadn't there?

Brian Katz: Up until March again, sort of the fall of the caliphate in that town in Baghouz in eastern Syria, there'd been 2,000 U.S. troops. President made the decision earlier in the year to do a partial withdrawal. As of three weeks ago, there were 1,000 troops. That's coalition, not just U.S., including French and UK and then tens of thousands of SDF. Unclear if there was going to be an effort to bolster up those 1,000. I think the idea was that those 1,000 that were remaining in Syria would be able to work directly in collaboration with U.S. forces in Iraq. We have forces not only up in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish, semi-autonomous area, but also in western Iraq out in those areas like in Anbar province near Baghdad where a lot of the Iraq, the counter ISIS fight in Iraq was taking place.

There was this plan to have this regional infrastructure to be able to deal with ISIS, with Syria as the focal point, all sort of working together. But now there's two big question marks. Well, one's not a question mark. One is settled. Syria, we're largely pulling out. The second just in the news today, Secretary Esper said that, will we withdraw these forces and keep them in Iraq? The government in Baghdad just came out and came out today and said, "Not so fast." We have no status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States for our forces. The urgency of the need to go defeat ISIS in 2014 created this kind of off the books said, not said agreement between the U.S. and Iraq for our forces to come back in to work by, with and through the Iraqi security forces. But there is no status of forces agreement.

Bob Schieffer: Did not Esper also say that he was going to leave, actually leave some American groups in Syria? And I believe the reason he gave was to protect the oil, which of course immediately set off responses from critics who said, "We're willing to leave U.S. forces to protect oil. We're not willing to leave them to protect the people who were fighting with us in this war against ISIS."

Brian Katz: If I were explaining my justifications for Middle East presence, guarding oil would not be in the top 100, given the way that it's perceived in the region. Broadly speaking, this idea of the U.S. having a security presence in Eastern Syria to continue to support the SDF makes sense. And for the SDF to remain and to sustain as a force, they do need economic revenue.

So the fact that the Kurds were able to seize a lot of those key oil fields in Eastern Syria ... There's Conoco fields near Deir al-Zor, and another big gas field, the Omar gas field in Eastern Syria, are among the most lucrative resources that exist in Syria. So it is important that, for the Kurds to have a sustainable economy, that they have access to those resources.

So if that were framed within this broader discussion of how to sustain Kurdish strength in Eastern Syria, that's one thing. But using it as one of the key justifications, probably not the best framing.

Andrew Schwartz: Let's talk about the larger geopolitics just beyond Syria. What does this mean for Iran and Hezbollah on one side and Israel on the other, for instance?

Brian Katz: So I think somewhere in Iran, Qasem Soleimani is pretty happy today. I think when Beirut actually ... Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, is probably happy about Syria, maybe less happy about all of the protests that are continuing to gather steam in Lebanon, but separate discussion.

I think what Iran and Hezbollah see is that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria has compelled the Kurdish forces to start considering making deals with the Assad regime, to maybe trade territory or to let the Assad government come back in to a lot of key areas of Eastern Syria in exchange for those forces, the Assad forces, checking this Turkish incursion.

In other words, for the Assad government and Iran and Hezbollah because of this U.S. decision, what they wanted and what Assad wanted was to reassert sovereignty across Eastern Syria, the areas where the U.S. was, they just got that for free without having to expend their own forces. They were very wary of taking on any future fight against the SDF in Eastern Syria because all of those forces have been worn down over eight years of civil war in Syria.

Iran and Hezbollah also, they are keenly aware of the broader tensions in the region between the U.S. and Iran, but also between themselves and Israel. So from Iran and Hezbollah's perspective, they see this decision as a way to solidify the Assad regime, helps stabilize it over the longer term without having to spend any more blood and treasure on the Syrian war and then focus those resources and attention to a potential conflict with Israel.

Bob Schieffer: So President Putin, how do you propose he feels about all this right now?

Brian Katz: I think President Putin is probably 90% thrilled and 10% wary. The 10% wary is, though he would probably never admit it publicly, he and the Russian government had some legitimate concerns about growing terrorism emanating out of Syria, both Al-Qaeda and ISIS, number of Chechen fighters who fought for both groups returning to the Caucasus, concerns of unrest and attacks in Russia. So the U.S. sort of pulling up and giving breathing space to ISIS again, he's probably a little bit wary of that. That's 10%.

I think that 90% is joy. That 90% comes from one, Bashar al-Assad, again, similar to Iran and Hezbollah, being able to reassert control over large parts of Syria cost-free.

Bob Schieffer: The Assad regime, which has used poison gas on its own people, does this mean that Mr. Assad has won this civil war in Syria, or is he close to victory, or how would you describe that?

Brian Katz: I think victory is a difficult term. So in the short term, largely, yes, the battlefield in Western Syria, sort of the ... About 90% of the population or 80% of the population in Syria lives in the West, in the core cities there, in Damascus, in Aleppo and Homs. And by 2018 the Assad regime had retaken most of those territories. The territories they reconquered, sort of brutally suppressing any potential future unrest.

That said, by using those brutal tactics, one can argue that it just set the stage for future instability because while number of those opposition groups have been either sort of quarantined in areas or defeated in other places, unrest is rising again. In Southern Syria, which was a core homeland for the Syrian opposition, you're starting to see more guerrilla attacks against regime forces. Up in Northwest Syria, in Idlib province, where most of the opposition that had been evacuated from the other cities in Syria ... You might recall they were all put on these green buses from 2015 to 2017 and all sent to Idlib. They're hanging on, and that's going to be a very difficult, brutal fight for the pro-Assad alliance.

So Assad, I think, feels pretty good about where he is in the civil war. He's firmly in power in Damascus. He has Aleppo, which is sort of the crown jewel of Syria, back in his control. But there's still some unrest.

But I think what makes Assad and Russia and Iran and Hezbollah particularly content is that there is going to be this question about Eastern Syria. How do we get it back if the U.S. was staying there and if the Kurds had been really built up into a semi-autonomous state with a real capable military that they didn't want to have to go fight and retake the territory? Now they don't have to have that fight.

And I think for Russia in particular, this now lets … Again, what Putin wants, he wants two things. One is Assad firmly in control. More or less has that. The second he wants is to enjoy the spoils of sort of victory in the war, which is to expand Russia's presence in holdings along the Eastern Mediterranean.

And again, we were very focused right on just the immediacy of the counterterrorism objectives in this war and on Syria itself. But for Russia, not only were those goals important, they viewed this as an opportunity to expand their presence in the Middle East more broadly and even into the Eastern Mediterranean, which is really important to the United States and the NATO alliance.

What Russia has been able to do is secure a 50-year agreement to maintain their port facilities in Tartus, this sort of major port on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. And what they have put in place there is a real threat to the U.S. Navy and to the NATO alliance, which is very sophisticated weapon systems including, we call, coastal defense cruise missile systems. These are the types of things that, they're sort of smart missiles, that can target U.S. and allied ships going out hundreds of kilometers, sort of puts in direct threat U.S. naval assets and allied assets in the area.

You take those gains that they've made in Syria for their military. And you look around the region. And you see President Putin feeling emboldened as this sort of new power broker in the Middle East, in the Mediterranean area, that, while not having pure military parity with the United States, can at least put question marks in the minds of those local countries that had long been our allies and partners that we're not the reliable one and that Russia can be a more reliable partner.

So you see more outreach between the Russian government and Egypt. You've seen Russia support one half of the civil war in Libya. You've seen greater Russian outreach to the Israeli government, to the Turkish government. I think Putin senses an opportunity now, which is a U.S. desire to downsize not only its presence in the region, but the emphasis it puts on the Middle East and sees, an opening for Russia to expand and pursue its interests.

Bob Schieffer: Brian Katz, thank you so much for bringing us the truth of the matter on this ongoing story in Syria. I'm Bob Schieffer.

Andrew Schwartz: And I'm Andrew Schwartz.

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