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Latest On U.S. Troop Pullout In Syria


It was just over a week ago that President Trump ordered a partial removal of American troops from northern Syria. Seven days was all it took for the situation there to change dramatically. About a thousand U.S. soldiers are on the way out. Turkish-backed forces have moved in. The Kurds, America's most stalwart ally in the country, have realigned with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Here to update us on the state of play is Ben Hubbard at The New York Times. He joins us from Dohuk, Iraq. Welcome to the program.

BEN HUBBARD: Thank you.

CORNISH: We learned yesterday that the president has ordered a withdrawal of almost all American troops from northern Syria. And here's the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaking about it on CBS.


MARK ESPER: We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies. And it's a very untenable situation. So I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team, and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.

CORNISH: Ben Hubbard, what do we know about what it means for the U.S. to withdraw? Is that further into the country or leaving the country altogether?

HUBBARD: Well, from what I've heard from officials, it's still a bit ambiguous. What we know for sure is that there is a plan to move American forces away from the border area so that they don't end up in the crossfire of any of that violence. What is not clear to me is what happens next. Is the idea just to move these people to somewhere else in Syria, or is this a first step in a general withdrawal to get all of the American forces out of Syria? And I don't think we've seen a longer-term plan fully articulated by the administration yet.

CORNISH: And President Trump has repeatedly said that there were only about 50 forces along this so-called buffer zone with Turkey, and in Syria overall, just about a thousand. So just for a step back, how could such a small presence have been holding everything together?

HUBBARD: Well, the only way that we were able to operate there effectively is because we had a very close ally in this Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, who did a lot of the groundwork for us. I mean, they guarded the perimeters of American bases. They sometimes accompanied American military convoys when they were driving around in the countryside. And we've just basically handed these people over to the Turks, who are coming in to try to flush them off the border.

So the question for me now is, after we basically pulled out of the way and allowed our, you know, former allies to be attacked by Turkey, why would they continue to do that work for us? And how does that change the operating environment for the American forces who are still in the country?

CORNISH: In the meantime, the Kurds have allied with al-Assad and the Syrian National Army. How is that deal playing out?

HUBBARD: Well, it's quite preliminary. It might be too early to say that they've actually allied with them. I mean, there's - we have sort of two stories. The Kurds are saying they basically struck a deal with the central Syrian government to bring its forces back to the northern border as a way to keep the Turks off. The Syrian government hasn't said anything about it. They do not recognize this as an independent administration. They see this as Syria, and they want to come back and claim the territory.

So as recently as two weeks ago, this whole area was quite quiet and quite safe. And then this - basically, once everybody knew that the United States was not going to enforce the safety of this area anymore, everything came into play. So, you know, Kurds have evacuated other parts of the territory to go up and fight against Turkey. This has left open territory. And so what we've seen today is huge columns of Syrian government troops driving into areas that they haven't set foot in in years and seizing these areas. And these are places that were considered part of an American sphere of influence as recently as two weeks ago.

CORNISH: What do military officials that you've heard from expect to see in the coming days? I mean, do they think that Turkey's going to broaden its incursion beyond this so-called buffer zone along the border?

HUBBARD: It's a very chaotic situation. We have a lot of different forces moving around. I mean, at this given point, we have Turkey with Syrian militias that it backs coming from one side. Then we have Kurdish-led militias on another side. And then we have Syrian government troops coming up from the south. And so there's really a lot of different forces in play, and it's a bit difficult to figure out exactly who is going to strike where and what they're going to be able to take. But I just think that this corner of the country, which as of two weeks ago was quite quiet and stable, is going to be sort of a mess of different kinds of violence until some of these issues get worked out.

CORNISH: That's Ben Hubbard. He reports from the region for The New York Times. Thank you for speaking with us.

HUBBARD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.