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Trump administration to withdraw military forces from Syria

President Trump appears to have ordered an immediate withdrawal of troops from Syria, tweeting that the U.S. had “defeated ISIS” there. But the decision contradicts policy advocated by administration officials and lawmakers. Brookings Institution's Gen. John Allen and Amherst College's Steve Simon, both of whom worked on Middle Eastern affairs in the Obama administration, discuss with John Yang.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our other top story: the president's decision to withdraw American forces from Syria.

    As John Yang reports, it came as an unwelcome surprise to U.S. allies and to many in both political parties on Capitol Hill.

  • John Yang:

    Throughout the year, President Trump has promised a change in Syria strategy.

  • Donald Trump:

    And, by the way, we're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We will be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.

  • John Yang:

    Today, it appeared soon could be here. First, a tweet: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there."

    Then a White House statement: "We have started returning troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign."

    But the shift appears at odds with many of his top aides. In October, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria will stay, as long as Iran and its allies are there supporting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

    Last month, Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria:

  • James Jeffrey:

    Their mission right now from the president is the enduring defeat, and the enduring defeat means not simply smashing the last of ISIS' conventional military units holding terrain, but ensuring that ISIS Doesn't immediately come back and sleeper cells come back as an insurgent movement.

  • John Yang:

    And just last week, this from Brett McGurk, special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS:

  • Brett McGurk:

    I think it's fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring. And nobody is declaring a mission accomplished.

  • John Yang:

    The U.S.-led campaign against ISIS began in 2014 with limited airstrikes. While ISIS fighters have been cleared from most population centers, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 remain in the countryside.

    Most of the American troops are deployed in Northern Syria working with Kurdish forces. Thousands of other Islamist militants, in addition to the last of the anti-Assad rebels, are in the northwestern corner of the country.

    Pro-government forces have regained Central and Southern Syria. The remaining ISIS pockets are near the Syria-Iraq border. Some in the president's own party say a U.S. withdrawal could give ISIS new life.

    South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham:

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    If we do in fact withdraw, the biggest winners are going to be Iran, ISIS, Assad. The biggest losers are going to be, I think, the people of Syria, potentially America, if ISIS comes back and projects force again, and our allies.

  • John Yang:

    At least one Republican, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, backed Mr. Trump.

  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.:

    I'm very supportive of the president's declaration. I'm very supportive of bringing the troops home.

  • John Yang:

    The decision will also likely please Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is threatening to attack the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

    Until the last terrorist in the region is neutralized, we will comb through Syrian territory inch by inch.

  • John Yang:

    He says they're tied to a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey.

    For now, there's no official timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Late today, White House officials said that would be up to the Pentagon.

    Now two views on President Trump's decision to withdraw forces from Syria. Retired General John Allen served as the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS during the Obama administration. He's now the president of the Brookings Institution. And Steve Simon also served in the Obama administration. He was the National Security Council's senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs. He's now a visiting professor at Amherst College.

    Gentlemen, thank you to you both, and welcome.

    Mr. Allen, I want to start with you.

    The president, as we heard, has declared that ISIS has been defeated, so there is no reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria. Do you agree?

  • John Allen:

    I think we'd be very careful about using the word defeat with respect to the Islamic State.

    We may have defeated its large concentrations, but there are still thousands of Islamic State operatives and fighters still on the ground in Syria. We have got to be very careful.

    I think, while all of us believed that our troops would come out eventually, coming out too quickly could create an opportunity for the Islamic State to backflash, which not only would put at risk those elements of the Syrian population that we supported in being liberated; it could also threaten the western flank of the work that our Iraqi allies did and paid such a huge price for in the defeat of the Islamic State.

    So we have got to be very careful about using that word defeat, and understand that the Islamic State is still an extraordinarily dangerous organization, not just in Syria and Iraq, but more so globally as well.

  • John Yang:

    Steve Simon, what do you say to that? He says pulling out too quickly could trigger a backflash that could threaten the Syrian people.

  • Steve Simon:

    It's possible.

    The United States was going to have to pull its forces out sooner or later. The fact that there are remaining ISIS sympathizers or ISIS militants on the ground, not organized as military units or controlling territory, is probably something that would have vexed any U.S. withdrawal at any point, because the goal of actually exterminating everyone in Syria who has ISIS ideology ricocheting around his or her brain is simply going to be impossible.

    I think, you know, the administration — two administrations, really, working in series, in sequence, have put an end to the Islamic caliphate. That's a major achievement, and it was an achievement that was widely expected, because the correlation of forces was so skewed in favor of the alliance that was fighting ISIS.

    But the ideology can't be extirpated that simply. It will be around. And getting rid of that ideology is not going to be a military mission. The fact is that the United States has dropped its aid program for the reconstruction of Syria in areas where ISIS had been operating.

    Unless those people get the support they need to rebuild their lives and their towns, the ISIS ideology will remain a serious problem. It will always be there.

  • John Yang:

    So, Mr. Simon, I just want to make sure that I'm clear on what you're sawing. You support the withdrawal now of U.S. troops?

  • Steve Simon:

    Yes. Yes, I do. I think the mission has largely been accomplished.

    The way in which the administration has gone about announcing it was, you know, really rather clumsy, and perhaps even dangerous, because our major partners had no idea that this was coming down the pike.

    So, there hasn't been the time to coordinate with the Kurds, with the French who are also operating in that area, or even, as a practical matter, with the Turks or the Russians. So, you know, this kind of way of doing business can be extremely destabilizing.

    But as — but as a matter of principle, I think, yes, it's probably a good idea to be bringing our troops out at this stage.

  • John Yang:

    Well, Mr. Allen, let's pick up that point that this way of business can be destabilizing.

    What — you talked about the effect on the Syrian people. What's the effect or could be the effect on the Kurdish people in particular?

  • John Allen:

    All of us believed that those troops would have to go home at some point.

    The question is, is that population sufficiently stable to prevent a backflash or a re-radicalization? The other issue here is this kind of confusion in Washington, by virtue of how this was promulgated today, and the apparent disagreements within the administration on how — on how this should be executed has, I'm sure, had a negative effect upon the Kurds.

    And I will make another point: No one except the United States could lead this process. And it's very important that, in this city, we remember that a large coalition of international partners came together under American leadership ultimately to defeat the Islamic State.

    But if we defeat the Islamic State, and to use our term to defeat the Islamic State, if we inflict a lot of damage on the Islamic State, and then pull out too quickly, and we get a backflash, or if we leave that population completely unsecure, and the retaliation begins, as the regime elements or the Russian firepower begins to be applied to them, then we're going to have to take responsibility for that in the end.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Simon, what do you have to say to that?

  • Steve Simon:

    The Kurds face a tragic choice. They can either submit to a Turkish rule, which will be carried out through the Turks' Sunni Arab allies, who are not sympathetic to the Kurds, or the Kurds can submit to rule by the Assad regime.

    But the Assad regime is not going to give the Kurds the autonomy or the independence that they so badly want, that they have been seeking for so long.

    It was inevitable that the United States was going to turn its back on the Kurds, because, in terms of strategic logic, Turkey is so much more important to the United States, especially now, than are the Kurds, in a global context in which the United States now sees a resurgent Russia, and needs to wonder how to strengthen NATO, of which Turkey is a part, and push back against Russian provocations.

  • John Yang:

    John Allen, very quickly.

  • John Allen:

    Yes, Steve's right. There's a tragic choice here with the Kurds.

    But this administration has the potential, if it pulls our troops out too quickly, of turning that tragic choice into a humanitarian catastrophe, and we shouldn't do that.

    We need come out on a timeline ultimately that both protects that population and does a very clear, incremental handover, in such a way that we don't put our allies in Northern Syria at risk to retaliation and retribution in the aftermath.

  • John Yang:

    Gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there.

    John Allen of the Brookings Institution, Steve Simon of Amherst College, thank you very much.

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