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Trump, top U.S. general strike different tones on stabilizing post-ISIS Syria

President Trump said Tuesday that the end is in sight for the U.S. military mission in Syria, yet military leaders have said the U.S. should remain until the Islamic State is wiped out. American reinforcements have arrived in Manbij in recent days, a sign that they will remain a counterweight in the conflict. John Yang talks to former USAID official Mona Yacoubian and Amberin Zaman of Al Monitor.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    U.S. policy towards Syria has been a hotly argued subject here in Washington, ever since the 2011 uprisings turned into a full-blown civil war.

    That debate continues today.

    As John Yang reports, President Trump has struck a different tone from one of his top generals, especially around the U.S. contribution to rebuilding territory formerly controlled by ISIS.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.

  • John Yang:

    Today, President Trump said that the end is in sight for the U.S. military mission in Syria.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's very costly for our country, and it helps other countries a hell of a lot more than it helps us. Will be making a decision as to what we do in the very near future.

  • John Yang:

    Barely a mile away, at a separate event in Washington, the head of U.S. Central Command had his own take on the fight against ISIS and what comes after it.

  • Gen. Joseph Votel:

    The hard part, I think, is in front of us, and that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction.

  • John Yang:

    U.S. military leaders, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have said the U.S. should remain in Syria until ISIS is wiped out. But Mr. Trump took the Pentagon by surprise last Thursday with this declaration.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We will be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.

  • John Yang:

    Then came reports that the administration froze $200 million in recovery funds for areas liberated from ISIS. Some 2,000 American service members are currently on the ground in Syria, the bulk special operations forces.

    Last week, an American and a British soldier were killed by a roadside bomb. It happened in the northern city of Manbij, near the Turkish border, where a new front in the grinding Syrian conflict has opened. With U.S. help, the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces recaptured Manbij from ISIS in 2016.

    Last month, Turkey launched an assault on Kurdish forces to the west, in Afrin. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to drive the Kurds from Manbij next. The Turkish operation has pulled Kurdish fighters from battling ISIS remnants in Eastern Syria, possibly allowing the militants an opportunity to regroup.

    U.S. reinforcements arrived in Manbij in recent days, an apparent sign that, for now at least, they will stay as a counterweight to the Turkish moves.

    Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Ankara today for meetings with the leaders of Turkey and Iran. Tomorrow, they will discuss the future of Syria, without the United States.

    For more on where the United States, its allies and its adversaries stand on the complex battlefield of Northern Syria, I'm joined by Mona Yacoubian. She was a deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East Bureau at U.S. Agency for International Development from 2014 to 2017. And Amberin Zaman, a columnist for Al-Monitor, an American Web site that reports on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

    Welcome to you both.

    So we have this split-screen moment today in Washington. The president speaking, and then General Votel and others speaking where you were.

    Mona, let me start with you.

    Is it clear to you what the American intention is in Syria?

  • Mona Yacoubian:

    Well, I think the American intention in Syria has been first and foremost to defeat ISIS. And I don't think that has shifted.

    I do think, though, that what we saw today playing out almost in real time are some of the tensions or the challenges that U.S. policy faces, with President Trump, who has been fairly clear that he's looking to pull U.S. troops out as soon as possible, while some of his key advisers are really underscoring, the battle isn't yet fully won and there is a need to maintain a U.S. presence there.

  • John Yang:

    Amberin, this meeting in Ankara with Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani from Iran, what is likely to come out, or what could come out of this?

  • Amberin Zaman:

    Well, this is part of an ongoing process known as the Astana process that was launched last year in May.

    And the idea was to create what they call de-escalation zones in Syria. And they designated four such zones. And the idea was that there would be cease-fires allowing humanitarian aid to come into these areas and at the same time laying the foundation for peace.

    And it's been going on sort of at a rather bumpy pace, because the idea of a cease-fire, well, it seems pretty laughable when you consider that the regime is continuing to bomb these so-called designated zones, de-escalation zones, most recently, as we saw, in Eastern Ghouta.

    And so these three leaders will come together and probably be talking about Idlib, which is this province that borders Turkey, which is one of the last remaining rebel strongholds where you have this al-Qaida-affiliated group known as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham that is there still.

    And Turkey is expected to use its leverage over those groups, those rebels in that province, to try and convince them to stop the fight.

  • John Yang:

    So, the United States is not participating in these talks that are going on?

  • Amberin Zaman:

    No. No. And these countries, Iran, Russia, and Turkey, present this not as an alternative to the Geneva peace process that the United States is involved in, and the U.N. obviously, but rather as a supplement to that, that will help bolster that process.

  • John Yang:

    And, Mona, when you hear these slightly different — different emphasis between the president and General Votel, what do the U.S. allies, what message do the U.S. allies take from this?

  • Mona Yacoubian:

    Well, I think it's concerning certainly to U.S. allies on the ground, mainly the Kurds, the primary partner on the ground inside Syria.

    I think there's a lot of worry about, how long will the U.S. stay? Is the U.S. simply going to pull out and not be there to help sustain and consolidate the gains that have been made on the ground an help stabilize the area?

  • John Yang:

    And, Amberin, all these parties on the battlefield all have conflicting — different and sometimes conflicting interests. Is Turkey more interested in defeating ISIS or in battling the Kurds?

  • Amberin Zaman:

    Well, if you were to ask the Kurds, they would say definitely to battle the Kurds. If you were to ask the Turks, they would say both.

    But the reality is that ever since Turkey gave up on the idea of regime change, realizing that was going nowhere, this campaign to overthrow Assad and empowering rebels, giving them, you know, space in Turkey to operate out of, after they made that shift in 2015, and that followed Russia's intervention very forcefully and decisively on the side of the regime, they decided that their priority would then become to try and defeat the Kurds there, because, over that period, from 2014 onwards, meanwhile, the United States got involved in this fight against the Islamic State.

    Turkey was expected and the rebels were expected to help in that fight, but didn't prove very effective, which is why the United States then went on to increase its help to these Kurdish group, because they proved to be extremely effective.

    The trouble, though, is that these Kurdish groups that the United States is helping are closely linked to another Kurdish group that is fighting inside Turkey. And, of course, Turkey is furious that the United States is arming the allies of a group that's fighting its own soldiers inside Turkey.

    And so, as we saw in January, they decided to carry matters further and attack this Syrian Kurdish group that's allied with the United States inside Syria. And this has undermined the fight against ISIS.

  • John Yang:

    Mona, we have less than 30 seconds left.

    Very quickly, the president said today that the United States has gotten nothing out of their — its involvement in the Middle East, except death and destruction.

    What is the U.S. interest in this fight, in fighting ISIS in Syria?

  • Mona Yacoubian:

    Well, I think primary interest is to protect the homeland, to ensure that the threat that ISIS posed while it was in the region doesn't come back to the U.S.

    Let's not forget 9/11 and potential for operations planned that could, in fact, target the homeland.

  • John Yang:

    Mona Yacoubian, Amberin Zaman, thank you so much.

  • Amberin Zaman:

    Thank you.

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