U.S. Officials Caught Off Guard By Trump's Shift In Northern Syria

Oct 8, 2019
Originally published on October 8, 2019 11:31 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump says, quote, "I consulted with everybody." This is what he said as he defended his decision to pull U.S. troops from the Turkish-Syrian border. But two U.S. officials tell NPR that military leaders directly involved in countering ISIS were blindsided by the president's sudden policy shift. The move is raising serious questions, concerns, that a Turkish invasion in northern Syria could endanger U.S.-allied Kurdish forces and strengthen the Islamic State. Even Trump's closest friends in Congress say the move will undercut U.S. foreign policy in the region. Here's Senator Lindsey Graham on Fox News.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: I expect the American president to do what's in our national security interest. It's never in our national security interest to abandon an ally who's helped us fight ISIS. It's never in our national security interest to create conditions for the reemergence of ISIS.

MARTIN: We're going to turn now to NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Tom, you spoke with these two U.S. officials. What did they tell you about the president's choice to take these American troops out of the Syrian border area?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, they're really stunned and also worried. And, Rachel, there are several concerns. They fear Turkey will launch a military operation into northeast Syria and leave these Kurdish forces aligned with America basically alone to fight Turkey. And they worry these Kurdish forces will abandon the anti-ISIS fight to focus on Turkey. Now, the caliphate is no more, as President Trump says. But what he failed to say is ISIS is regrouping, slipping back into cities and towns and mounting assassinations and bombings. And one of the U.S. officials I spoke with said this is all reminiscent of last December when the president abruptly said he wanted all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria. Pentagon officials convinced Trump to keep about 1,000 troops in northeast Syria to continue this fight against ISIS.

MARTIN: But we remember that then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis actually resigned over that very decision.

BOWMAN: That was one of the reasons he left. That's right.

MARTIN: So did they have a heads-up? I mean, were they caught completely - the Pentagon. Was the Pentagon caught flat-footed by the president's decision?

BOWMAN: I'm told they were, that nobody knew how this call was going to go. I'm told it ended up being what they call a bad call. And the Pentagon was basically informed that these troops will be pulled back. There was never any interagency discussion about the policy. It was basically, what I'm told, a knee jerk from President Trump. And those troops were pulled out.

MARTIN: Is there a scenario in which ISIS could get stronger because of this?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. And ISIS still is a big threat. It's regrouping, and it could gain even more strength as a result of this, President Trump pulling out these troops. There are thousands of ISIS fighters who have gone to ground in Syria and Iraq. U.S. troops are working with these local forces to go after them. So again, the pullback of U.S. forces and the possible military operation by Turkey could make all this worse.

MARTIN: So we should just take a step back because the reason that there are these widespread concerns, even among Republicans, that Turkey could now attack our allies, America's allies, the Kurds, is because Turks see the Kurds as terrorists. So what does that mean about America's future relationship with Turkey on the national security front? I mean, are the priorities aligned when the United States wants Turkey to help with ISIS but Turkey wants to attack the Kurds?

BOWMAN: No. Turkey's - their focus will be on attacking the Kurds, not on ISIS. So that's why it can make things a lot worse. And also, it can embolden other forces in the area - Russian forces, Iranian forces and Syrian forces - to move into the breach as a result of this. So it's really - a lot of chaos is what's going on here.

MARTIN: A dangerous kind of vacuum. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.