U.S. Troop Pullout of Syria
October 15, 2019
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 a 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 President Trump's decision to withdraw American troops in Northern Syria, we'll talk with Bulent Aliriza. Bulent has been the director and senior associate for CSIS's Turkey project since 1994. Prior to joining the CSIS, he was a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He had previously served as a Turkish Cypriot diplomat in New York and Washington.
Bob Schieffer: Thank you so much for joining us, and as we often do on this podcast, we start with a simple question. What is this all about?
Bulent Aliriza: Yeah. We're discussing the question over Turkish intervention in Syria at this moment, because of a phone conversation two days ago between the Turkish President Erdoğan, and US President Trump. President Erdoğan has been talking for months about his desire to actually move his troops into Northern Syria and establish a safe zone. He's been very unhappy with the US cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which he says is affiliated with the Turkish PKK, who Turkey has been fighting since 1984. And he's been unhappy that the US has not been listening to him and putting his concerns to one side in its desire to use the Syrian Kurdish forces as the ground troops in the operation that ultimately proved successful in defeating ISIS.
Bob Schieffer: This business about the Kurds, this has been a problem ever since what? Back to World War One, when the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, all through Syria, Turkey, wanted their own state.
Bulent Aliriza: Well, when the first world war resulted in the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, there were no states like Syria or Iraq. There were the mandates that the colonial powers, the UK and France had established in the Fertile Crescent, and there were Kurds living in both countries, more in Iraq than in Syria, but also in Turkey. The Wilsonian principles encouraged the Kurds to believe that they were going to get an independent state. That did not happen. The Kurds who found themselves in Turkey, like the Kurds are found themselves in Iraq and the Kurds who found themselves in Syria, then had to live within the nation States that were created in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire.
Bulent Aliriza: There is a Kurdish problem in every one of the three countries that I mentioned, but also in Iran, where they form a sizable minority. They may be one of the biggest ethnic groups that do not have a state. Within Turkey, there has been an ongoing insurgency by the PKK, which has resulted to terrorism in order to try and establish an independent state. That failed. They failed to carve out a state or even an autonomous zone within Turkey, but they have done so in both Iraq, where they have now the Kurdish regional government in Northern Iraq, and the US was very much instrumental in helping that to happen as it defeated Saddam Hussein.
Bulent Aliriza: But they also have one in Syria. The YPG, having defeated the Islamic State, so-called Islamic State, ISIS, has effectively establishing an autonomous zone from the Euphrates River, all the way to where Turkey, Iraq, and Syria meet. And it's precisely this autonomous zone, self-governing zone, which has been established with the help of the United States, that Turkey is opposed to. And it's determined to actually bring it to an end and establish a safe zone under its control, with the help of Syria and opposition forces, that it has been sustaining in Syria.
Bob Schieffer: And during this recent Syrian Civil War, the Kurds in Syria were allies of the United States, and are very good fighters. We supported them with air power and so on. Yet back in Turkey, they are considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government, and therein is the problem, is it not? They were trying to help us in Syria. They helped to destroy ISIS, yet Turkey has never been comfortable with that. So why did the president decide to say it's just time to pull out? We won, and we're leaving.
Bulent Aliriza: Well, he's been justifying it with reference to his campaign promise to bring back US forces from what he says are endless wars. With every tweet that he sends out, he says endless wars. That can be justified, but in this case, we would be talking about leaving a situation which is unstable, to become even more unstable. And eventually the issue is going to come back to haunt the United States, specifically with respect to the remnants of ISIS. Just to focus on that for a moment, because it's such an important aspect of the problem. There are thousands of ISIS fighters who were not killed, who are currently in prison in Northern Syria.
Bulent Aliriza: The Syrian Kurdish forces are keeping them in prison, but they cannot try them because they're not a government. Many of the ISIS fighters come from other countries who do not want them back. That includes the United States, because there are US citizens who are there. Beyond the fighters, there are the families of the ISIS fighters, thousands of them. They still adhere to the same principles and dangerous ideas that motivated them and their menfolk in the past. So what do you do with them? The Syrian Kurds are saying that if we have to confront the Turkish military, we wash our hands of this issue.
Bulent Aliriza: Now, Trump has said that Turkey will take care of them. We'll see how that issue is resolved. To go back to your question though, the Syrian Kurdish YPG is indeed affiliated with the PKK. But what the US did was, to move away from its own commitment to regard the PKK as a terrorist organization. So it's not just Turkey that sees the PKK as a terrorist organization, but also the US government, and treat the YPG as a separate organization for the purpose of defeating ISIS, under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic forces. So whenever the US government has been talking about its aid to the Syrian Kurds, it has done so in the context of the SDF.
Bulent Aliriza: Now, Turkey is saying that this is distinction without a difference, that it's meaningless. Ultimately, the YPG is the PKK. Now, the YPG for its part, did fight well. They've lost thousands of their fighters against the ISIS, and they do expect if not gratitude, at least an understanding for a post ISIS situation in which they are in control of Northern Syria. They do not want to fall under the control of Assad again, and it's worth remembering that during the days of Assad, both Bashar and his father, Hafez, the Syrian Kurds were not even given identity papers.
Bulent Aliriza: There were not recognized as an ethnic group, and they found themselves, because of the US decision in October, 2014, when President Obama after a phone call to Present Erdoğan who opposed the decision, decided to drop supplies to the Syrian Kurds to help defend themselves at the town of Kobane. And yes, ISIS, which was threatening to overrun them. Now, nobody in the Obama White House, or Defense Department or the State Department actually thought through the implications of engaging the Syrian Kurds, the YPG in an effort to defeat ISIS, as part of a tactical alliance, and what this would ultimately mean for the strategic alliance with Turkey, which stretches back seven decades all the way to the Truman Doctrine and to NATO membership.
Bulent Aliriza: And this is where the chickens are coming home to roost. Now, Trump in his very clumsy and roundabout way, is trying to tackle the issue by saying... Cutting the Gordian Knot as it were by saying, "We're going to pull out." It's not that simple. He made that similar promise to Erdoğan in December, 2018, and then he was forced to reverse it and agree to the American troops staying in Northern Syria. Now, that crisis actually led to the resignation of Secretary Mattis, who opposed the decision, as well as a number of other officials. Now, Mattis is gone, and others have departed, including John Bolton who had opposed that decision. But there is serious congressional opposition to Trump's decision, and it really does remain to be seen whether he will actually do it this time.
Bulent Aliriza: There are many people, including me, who expect him to revise, if not totally reverse the decision.
Bob Schieffer: So you think this is literally not going to stand, this decision that the president made. And I must say, the response from the Congress has just been overwhelmingly against this. Republicans who seem to find nothing wrong with a president asking the Ukrainian president or Putin of Russia or China, to help him track down his political enemies, they ran pretty much silent. But everybody has just... There's been an uproar at the Capitol. I haven't seen this kind of a bi-partisan uproar about anything, literally since the president took office.
Bulent Aliriza: Except when it came to withdrawing from Northern Syria, as I mentioned-
Bob Schieffer: Yeah.
Bulent Aliriza: In the early months of this year. Again, it was the same people, Lindsay Graham and others, the closest allies Trump on the Hill. Jim Grish, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Inhofe the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who are normally in lockstep with with Trump, who opposed that decision and got him to reverse it. I see the same kind of pressure build up, including this time Mitch McConnell, who almost never goes against anything that Trump has-
Bob Schieffer: Well, what is it... And I want to go to Andrew, but what is it about this issue that has made it so volatile?
Bulent Aliriza: I think the fact that the Syrian Kurds did fight and defeat ISIS, has given them a lot of credit in Washington, and not withstanding the residual support for Turkey as a loyal ally, not withstanding all the problems that have occurred recently, there is a desire on the part of Capitol Hill to try and satisfy Turkish security concerns as part of an agreement that Jim Jeffrey, the current Syrian point man is trying to work out, while maintaining the tactical alliance with the YPG to keep the possibility of a revival of the ISIS threat in check, and ensuring that the two sides do not fight each other.
Bulent Aliriza: This is something that Trump himself has said that the he wanted to achieve. So the question is whether he tries to maintain that balance given that he is now committing himself for a second time to Erdoğan.
Bob Schieffer: Andrew.
Andrew Schwartz: Thank you Bob. Bulent, this is exactly why we created this program. A situation like this comes up in policy, and we can bring in one of our experts to really explain it to us. So thanks for being here. I wanted to ask you, put yourself in the mind of Erdoğan. You said earlier that President Trump's doctrine has been to withdraw our troops from overseas. Turkey obviously is a NATO ally. The Kurds in Northern Syria have been a United States ally. Did Erdoğan put himself in the mind of trying to play to Donald Trump's doctrine and say, "We're going to go, and we're going to say to Donald Trump hey, you wanted to pull your troops out, so why don't you just do that so we can go in and do our thing?"
Bulent Aliriza: Absolutely. He did the same thing at the end of 2018. He said, "Look, we can take care of this." In fact, all the way back to the Obama presidency, Erdoğan was saying that, "We can defeat ISIS. You don't have to maintain this alliance." But for its own reasons, the US security establishment decided that the best way to confront ISIS was to build up the Syrian Kurdish forces who did fight well against ISIS, but the victory created a problem, and it's the one that I mentioned, which is to balance the strategic relationship with Turkey and the tactical alliance with YPG. Now, Trump is saying that the ISIS threat is over.
Bulent Aliriza: That is not a view that's shared by too many people who are looking at the problem.
Andrew Schwartz: All of his closest advisors.
Bulent Aliriza: Absolutely.
Andrew Schwartz: Jim Jeffrey, you mentioned before, one of the Middle East's top hands in the administration. You mentioned General Mattis actually resigned over this very issue. You mentioned Bolton, who's no longer there. You mentioned... You could go throughout the entire national security apparatus within this administration and as Bob said, on Capitol Hill, and they'll all say, "This is not in the national security interest of the United States." So where does that leave President Trump on this issue?
Bulent Aliriza: In a very difficult position, but one of the good things of being President Trump is that you don't realize the predicament that you put yourself in with tweets and with policy decisions. You just decide to wing your way through. But in this case, I think he's got an even bigger problem than the last time when he made the promise to Erdoğan, because I've noticed that even his evangelical supporters like Pat Robertson and others are joining in and saying that this is something that's unacceptable. Robertson actually said that Trump is in danger of losing the keys to heaven if he goes ahead with this. I mean, that's the kind of thing that if you rely on evangelicals, that's actually going to make you think twice.
Andrew Schwartz: But is Donald Trump reading his polling? And his polling says that Americans want US troops out everywhere.
Bulent Aliriza: They do. But again, if you were to ask in the same opinion polls, "Do you worry that ISIS might come back again?" And they would say, "Yes."
Andrew Schwartz: Right.
Bulent Aliriza: And that's the predicament.
Bob Schieffer: What I find astounding is that when Trump made this announcement saying, "If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey." That sounds remarkably like what the Wizard of Oz said when Dorothy went in, and you wonder, where's Toto right now to pull back the curtain?
Andrew Schwartz: Also, not how you talk to a NATO ally necessarily.
Bob Schieffer: Well, exactly.
Bulent Aliriza: This was his second tweet. He first announced the conversation took place late Sunday night, and the announcement was made by Stephanie Grisham out of the White House, confirming that Trump had agreed to allow Turkish forces to go in and to withdraw American forces. Trump sent out a tweet confirming it himself, and then he obviously watched Fox TV, where Lindsay Graham was on, complaining vociferously about the decision, and saw the other sources of opposition on Capitol Hill. And then he sent out another tweet saying, "If they go too far, then we're going to devastate the Turkish economy."
Bulent Aliriza: Refer to the sanctions that he imposed on Turkey that led to the Turkish currency falling against the dollar last year.
Andrew Schwartz: Right. The end of that tweet said, "As I've done before."
Bulent Aliriza: Exactly. Now, this Turkish economy is vulnerable, and I tracked the trajectory of the Turkish currency yesterday, and after the Trump announcement, it fell quite a bit against the dollar. Today, he sent out a tweet in which he said nice things about Turkey and mentioned that there would be a November 13 meeting. The currencies recovered somewhat. So the Turkish economy is indeed vulnerable. That may be one of the reasons why Erdoğan is keen on achieving a foreign policy success, because the economic difficulties that he's been facing were a factor in his loss of control in Istanbul, where he began his political career way back, as well as the capitol city of Ankara.
Bulent Aliriza: There's one other part of the story I think Bob, that we need to touch on. Turkey does not just want to establish a safe zone in Northern Syria. Erdoğan has been talking about sending back as much as two million of the four million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Now, with the economic difficulties, the issue of the Syrian refugees has become more important in Turkey. It might even have been a factor in the loss of Istanbul. So Erdoğan is keen to actually resettle them in Northern Syria, but that cannot happen within the safe zone that Erdoğan and Trump have talked about.
Bulent Aliriza: Trump has apparently mentioned 20 miles. Although it's a long border, if you multiply it even by 20 miles, again it's not an area that you can settle two million Syrian refugees in. So he may have to push even further in, which will certainly stretch Turkey's military capabilities. It will certainly stretch Turkey's economic capabilities, to actually set up the infrastructure and housing, which may cost as much as 20 billion plus dollars. Military operations is one part of the equation. The post-military operation if and when it takes place of resettlement is another, and I'm not sure that the US government has actually thought through and taking a position on the implication of resettlement of a huge number of Syrian refugees.
Bulent Aliriza: And that takes us to the whole issue of the US policy on Syria, which has been all over the place. And the US, along with the Europeans, have been content to let Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, deal with the refugee issue without coming up with a sort of post Syrian Civil War martial plan to deal with it. And so, we need to think in terms of what a military operation would look like, with all its implications, and a post military operation resettlement with all these implications.
Bob Schieffer: When I was covering the news, the daily news at CBS, we had a rule called the Stringer Rule, and it was named after Howard Stringer who had been the president of CBS News. And it basically was this. In every story we had to put in a paragraph that said, why you need to know this, why this is important. Why is this important to America? Is it our national security? Is it our national reputation? What is it that makes this so important?
Bulent Aliriza: It's a great question. I think with almost every foreign policy commitment, just to take one example, the retention of American troops in Germany so many years, so many decades after the war. You can ask the question and come up with a negative answer, but previously what we had was successive security establishments. The broader Washington policy elite, the Washington marketplace of ideas, which all three of us are very much a part of, that would debate these issues and then come up with a rational decision. In this case, we have a president who does not seem to have thought through ideas and policies on these important issues.
Bulent Aliriza: Yeah, he does not have an inter-agency process that functions. When he makes these calls apparently, he does not have the talking points in front of him, or if he has them, he does not read them. So when answer this question, we have to break it into two parts again. First is, why is it important? Is it important for the President who ultimately makes foreign policy and overseas security policy? Is it important for the American public? And if it is important for the American public, and we can say because the ISIS threat has not gone away, and there is a moral responsibility to actually not make the situation any worse by decisions that are made now, having dealt with the ISIS problem, which was a symptom and certainly not the cause of the Syrian War, and how much that will actually have an impact on the President and his administration.
Bulent Aliriza: I feel the answer there is not much. We debate this issue. Such as it is, there is a public debate on this issue. Certainly, Congress is involved. But whether that actually has an impact on President Trump and his administration is debatable, and that is something of great concern to all of us.
Andrew Schwartz: So Bulent, what's next between Trump and Erdoğan?
Bulent Aliriza: Well, I think that they're going to have to talk again because obviously the conversation that they had on Sunday night was not enough to settle the issue. In fact, it created even more questions than answers. They're due to meet as I said, on November 13th, but before then Erdoğan has to decide whether he's going to move into Northern Syria, both to set up the safe zone and maybe even to proceed to the much bigger issue of resettling the refugees, or hold off until November 13th. Now, I think there must be people around him, and certainly he was talking to some of the congressional opponents who must be saying, "Why don't you tell him to hold off until he comes here?"
Bulent Aliriza: So Erdoğan has a decision to make. What Trump says to him through tweets or through a second telephone conversation, is obviously going to be a factor in the equation. It's difficult to say, but certainly judging by his statements before he left for Serbia on this trip, I think he will make a move. My guess is that it will not be across the entire border. It'll be limited incursion. It will A, underline his determination on this issue. He will convey a message to President Trump and to the US government that he's very serious about this, and then maybe hold off on expanding the incursion until he has his meeting in Washington.
Andrew Schwartz: We're talking about 2,000 troops here about, US troops. We're going to withdraw these 2,000 troops, and the Kurds in Northern Syria who are guarding thousands of ISIS prisoners, and the prisons themselves are makeshift prisons. They're schools that have been turned into jails, community centers that have been turned in jails, that the US has helped the Kurds build bars and things. So not secure, to say the least. This could end up being a massacre, or this could end up being ISIS regenerating itself. What could happen here if the US really does withdraw?
Bulent Aliriza: Well, we're speculating, both with respect to the timing and scope or the Turkish intervention. We can speculate about the YPG resistance. Now, with the urging of the US, the YPG has apparently withdrawn five kilometers away from the border. So if the Turkish incursion is only within those five, 10 kilometers, or whatever it is, the YPG has apparently vacated, or it says it has, and the US government is saying the same thing. We're not talking about a major clash, in which case the YPG may continue to detain those prisoners without a mass breakout, and without them reconstituting themselves.
Bulent Aliriza: That would be a good way to deal with Turkish security concerns and still maintain the relationship with the YPG. Now, the US forces have not been withdrawn. They have been withdrawn from immediately on the border. There were a couple of forward observation posts that were vacated. Turkish TV has been showing it, but they have not been withdrawn from Syria. One senior State Department official giving a briefing yesterday said, "We're talking only about 20 who withdrew from that immediate area." So the US military commitment still continues, but there's a huge question mark over how long they will stay there because of Trump's attitude.
Bulent Aliriza: This is the second time that he's threatened to withdraw them. And even if he backs off, the question is not going to go away, and I think it would be good for this issue to be discussed in Congress, to define a US policy that goes beyond the resolution of this particular crisis.
Bob Schieffer: Bulent, I want to thank you for helping us get to the truth of the matter on these latest moves in the Middle East by the administration. We'll be back next week. I'm Bob Schieffer.
Andrew Schwartz: And I'm Andrew Schwartz.
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