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Leaving Syria is ‘knife in the back’ for Kurdish forces, Panetta says

The U.S. military is on the way out of northeastern Syria, and it appears that Turkish forces are on their way in. What does President Trump's decision to withdraw troops mean for Syria and Kurdish forces? Amna Nawaz gets reaction from former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former National Security Council staff member Steve Simon.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    For a deeper look at what this all means, we turn to Leon Panetta. He served as the director of the CIA and then secretary of defense during the Obama administration. And Steve Simon, he served as senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. He's now professor of international relations at Colby College.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

    Secretary Panetta, I'd like to begin with you, if you don't mind.

    How big a change in U.S. policy is this latest move?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, I think this is a serious foreign policy blunder that is going to undermine United States' leadership and further weaken our role in the world.

    I mean, we're putting a knife in the back of the Kurds who basically fought alongside of us in trying to destroy the ISIS caliphate. And, in basically leaving the Kurds vulnerable, we have also opened up the possibility that Syria will go into the hands of Russia, Iran, and that ISIS will further strengthen itself.

    So, from every aspect, I consider this to be a very serious blunder on the part of the president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Steve Simon, you have long argued that this was a long time coming, that the alliance with those Syrian — or the Kurdish, rather, forces there had a very short shelf life, this was inevitable in some ways.

    Do you agree with this decision to withdraw U.S. forces?

  • Steve Simon:

    Well, I think it was the right decision, but it was really not well-prepared, as Secretary Panetta points out, I think quite eloquently.

    It was known certainly since last winter that this was the president's inclination, and he was determined to do it. He was talked out of it at the time. But in the interval between the president's aborted decision last November and the decision he's made just today, nothing was done to prepare the ground for the withdrawal.

    And this, to me, is just — I guess it's astounding, because there were options that the United States could have pursued that would have reassured Turkey in a way that removed its incentive to invade Syria under conditions that we're looking at now.

    But none of those steps were really taken. And they weren't taken because there was a view on the part of the administration that it would entail talking to the regime in Damascus. And this was something that the United States didn't want to do.

    Now, you know, on one level, that's understandable. The regime in Damascus is repugnant. But if the Turks are going to be assured or reassured that the PKK won't be a security problem for them, then, really, the only way to accomplish that is for these areas of Syria that are now administered by the Kurds are reinstated into the Syrian state.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Steve Simon, do I take that to mean that you…

  • Steve Simon:

    I think that would be OK for the Turks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Should I take this to mean that you disagree with the president's decision?

  • Steve Simon:

    As I said, the president's decision is perfectly legitimate, I think. It makes a lot of sense. But the ground hasn't been prepared for that — for that movement.

    And it could have been. And it wasn't because the parties that are involved didn't use the time available to them, between the president's decision last November to withdraw and now. And that's deeply regrettable.

    So the question that we face is how best to implement President Trump's decision in ways that don't lead to serious disorder, civic disorder, in the areas of Syria that are administered by the Kurds and their Arab allies.

    It's a very large area. And, as your report pointed out, it…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Allow me to put that to Secretary Panetta there.

  • Steve Simon:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is there a good way to implement this decision? Is there a way to do this in a way that you think doesn't lead to a potential resurgence of ISIS forces or doesn't put our Kurdish allies on the ground at risk?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, there's no way to do it, when you basically give up the only leverage you have, which is the presence of U.S. troops in that region.

    That's why the president reversed himself when he first made this decision back in December, and he retained our forces there. If our forces are there, then we can negotiate with Turkey, we can negotiate with Syria, we can negotiate with others in terms of how this transition ought to take place.

    But once you immediately pull out U.S. forces without that preparation, you're essentially saying you're on your own, and Turkey is given an invitation to basically invade Syria.

    Those are consequences that are going to hurt our credibility, the United States' credibility, with allies. We depend on allies. We depended on the Kurds to help us destroy the caliphate. To suddenly leave Syria and say to the Kurds, you're on your own, sends a signal to other allies not to trust the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Steve Simon, does this hurt our credibility with other allies? Who would trust us after this reversal?

  • Steve Simon:

    I think allies are constantly evaluating the reliability of U.S. commitments.

    In this case, I think what gets lost is the fact that the Kurds had their own reasons for joining us in this anti-ISIS operation. They were acting in their interests.

    And one of those interests was the hope of U.S. support for some kind of autonomous arrangement for the Kurds within Syria along the lines that the U.S. had secured for the Kurds in Iraq.

    So the Kurds were playing their own game here. They were pursuing their own interests. This was not an act of altruism on the part of the Kurds. At this point, the U.S. and Kurdish interests are diverging. So you're seeing a weakening of the alliance that Secretary Panetta has referred to as a stab in the back, but it's diverging interests, and they can't be helped right now.

    Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Steve Simon, very quickly, let me ask, do you believe that U.S. withdrawal from this area could lead to a resurgence of the ISIS threat?

  • Steve Simon:

    Well, I think, if the Kurds are given a choice of fighting the Turks or fighting ISIS, they're going to turn on the Turks. They're going to defend themselves against the stronger enemy and the more lethal one.

    And that, in effect, is going to damage fight against ISIS, because, even though the United States has been a keystone in the effort to combat the Islamic State, the fighting and dying has been done by others, including the Kurds.

    So they're going to be distracted. They don't have the strength to fight a two-front war.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Secretary Panetta, what about you?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, there's no question that this is going to give ISIS the opportunity to regroup.

    There are tens of thousands of terrorists that are in camps that the Kurds have overseen. They are now going to turn their attention to dealing with the Turks, which means that those terrorists are going to become part of the ISIS effort.

    So there is no question that what the president did is going to basically give ISIS additional ability to reorganize and then threaten the United States. It's a terrible mistake.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Steve Simon, if those fighters are released or do escape, thousands of them in detention right now watched over by the Kurdish forces, what's your reaction to that? What happens then?

  • Steve Simon:

    Well, first of all, it's hard for me to believe that these ISIS fighters that we're talking about are going to make it to the United States and attack the United States in our own homeland or really have the assets, the resources, the planning, skill, and so forth to seriously damage the United States' interests in the Middle East.

    So it's — I'm not a big fan of ISIS, mind you, but their ability to threaten U.S. interests, I think, is really rather limited.

    So, the question is…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you still — do they pose a threat to our NATO allies, to our European allies?

  • Steve Simon:

    Yes, I would say of a limited nature.

    But our NATO allies have considerable resources to deal with this threat. And, mind you, the ISIS fighters we're talking about have to get to Europe to do this.

    To the extent that ISIS is an ideology that's extremely anti-Western, well, there's no question about that. But the ideology doesn't travel just in bodies. The ideology travels on the Internet and through other channels to influence opinion of Muslim populations in a lot of places, including Europe.

    The fate of these ISIS fighters in Syria, where they are still beleaguered, even if the Kurds are distracted, is not going to be a major factor in European or United States security.

    It will be a major factor for people who live in areas in which ISIS succeeds in reestablishing control in rural areas of Syria. That's true. But the effect on the United States interests, I think, is really, you know, difficult to identify.

    I think the key task right now is finding ways to reassure the Turks, get them calmed down, that the Kurds on the Syrian side of the border will not threaten their security. And I don't think that that can be done unless the Syrian regime, as well as the Russians, are brought into the equation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Secretary Panetta, I see you shaking your head.

    Very briefly, would you like to respond?

  • Leon Panetta:


    With great respect, that's a very naive approach, to assume that somehow ISIS will never be able to reorganize and conduct the kind of attacks that we have seen them conduct in the past.

    We have learned that from Al-Qaida. We learned from the fact that, when we left Iraq, what happened was, ISIS reorganized itself and then created a caliphate between Syria and Iraq that then represented a national security threat to the United States.

    I don't think we ought to assume that somehow ISIS is not going to be intent on their principal goal, which is to attack the United States. That remains a threat.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, gentlemen, we will have to leave it there.

    Thank you very much for your time.

    That's former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former member of the National Security Council under the Obama administration Steve Simon.

    Thank you.

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