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U.S. troops could be in Syria indefinitely. Here’s why

Turkey's military appeared ready on Friday to invade a Kurdish area of Syria and attack a force who, backed by the U.S., helped liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State. While the U.S. wants to convert them into a stabilization force, Turkey's president says they are a grave threat. Nick Schifrin talks with former Pentagon official Andrew Exum and Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Turkey's military appeared ready to invade a Kurdish area of Syria today, and attack a force backed by the United States.

    This comes as Syria's near-seven-year war grinds on, with the Assad regime and its Russian allies hammering opposition areas.

    So, as Nick Schifrin reports, an already-complex battlefield might soon become even more so.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the Turkish-Syrian border, the Turkish military appears ready for battle. They're amassing tanks and firing artillery into Syria.

    Today, Turkish media said a hospital was targeted and destroyed. This is Syria's north and northwest, controlled mostly by Kurds, in yellow, the same Kurds who helped liberate former ISIS headquarters Raqqa.

    The U.S. wants to convert these forces to a 30,000-strong stabilization force. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the U.S.-backed group a grave threat.

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through interpreter):

    A country that we call our ally insists on forming a terror army along our border, despite all our objections, warnings and well-meant advice. Do you think a terrorist organization formed along the Turkish border has a target other than Turkey?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. insists the force poses no threat to Turkey. But the U.S. will support them for years, as part of a long-term military commitment designed to prevent ISIS from returning, says Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

  • Rex Tillerson:

    ISIS presently has one foot in the grave. And by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The 2,000 American troops in Syria are a mix of trainers, Marines, and front-line special operations forces. They will target ISIS and al-Qaida, but also have other goals, eliminating the chemical weapons that the Syrian regime has used against its own people, diminishing Iran's influence and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters, and helping the 11.5 million refugees and internally displaced.

    That's a huge order after seven years of war. It could mean U.S. troops are in Syria indefinitely.

  • Rex Tillerson:

    Responsible change may not come as immediate as some hope for, but rather through an incremental process of constitutional reform, U.N.-supervised elections. But that change will come.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, today, what's coming is still Assad regime bombardment. Syria obliterated buildings in Idlib province, the largest area still held by rebels. The war has killed as many as half-a-million, and counting.

    For more on Syria, the U.S., Turkey, and the Kurds, I'm joined by Andrew Exum. He's a former Army Ranger and served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East under President Obama. He's now a contributing editor to The Atlantic. And Mona Yacoubian, she is the senior adviser for Syria, Middle East and North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace here in Washington.

    And welcome to you both. Thank you very much.

  • Andrew Exum:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Andrew Exum, let's start with Turkey and the border in the northwest right now. You faced this under the Obama administration. The Trump administration has also found that these Kurdish forces are the most effective against ISIS, but Turkey sees them as terrorists.

    So how big of a threat is it when Turkey starts talking about invading Northwest Syria?

  • Andrew Exum:

    Yes, Turkey has been very transparent and what about their interests are in Syria. They don't like the Islamic State. They don't like Nusra. They don't like the Sunni militants.

    They also don't like the Assad regime, but their primary concern is the Kurdish forces that are in mostly Northeast, but also some in Northwest Syria. They are petrified that there is going to be some sort of semiautonomous Kurdish region. They view the Kurdish factions that are in control in Northern Syria as being one in the same as with the same PKK terrorists who have been waging the campaign against the Turkish state.

    And so their interests are at odds with what the United States is trying to do, which is use these forces as a proxy force to carry out U.S. interests on the ground.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so how big of a threat is it if Turkey uses its military in Northwest Syria against those Kurdish forces?

  • Andrew Exum:

    Well, this is something that we had to deal with in the Obama administration, and now the Trump administration is dealing with it as well.

    For a long while, the Turks talked a lot about what they might do. However, a little over a year, a year-and-a-half ago, they actually went into Syria. So they have shown a willingness to intervene militarily in Northern Syria in a way that can complicate efforts against the Islamic State.

    Now, the good news is the war against the Islamic State has largely been won at this point. However, that doesn't mean that the war in Syria might continue for quite some time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, Mona Yacoubian, let's talk about that more strategic notion of where Syria is.

    And let me bring up a map we have here, the various factions in Syria. Kurdish forces in yellow in the north. The Syrian regime, the majority of the country, in red. Those Turkish forces that Andrew Exum just mentioned just in that sliver of green. In orange, the anti-Assad forces, various groups, and where we talked about fighting in Idlib.

    Are we looking at the endgame for Syria right now?

  • Mona Yacoubian:

    I think we are, in the sense that it's clear that the Assad regime has consolidated its control certainly over Damascus and over the main parts of Syria.

    But at the same time, this is going to be a very protracted and messy endgame. And I think many of the conflicts and the subconflicts that have already been referenced, the Turks staking their claim and what their red lines are, the regime looking to regain control of Idlib, which is, as you see on the map, very, very centrally located, the Kurds attempting to stake their claim, I think that's — it is an endgame, but it will be long, it will be messy, and it will be, unfortunately, rife with conflict.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, a lot of conflict, long and messy.

    But, Andrew Exum, is the war strategically over? Did the Syrian regime win?

  • Andrew Exum:

    No, I think Mona put it very well.

    I think that the war strategically, for all intents and purposes, is over. The Syrian regime did win. We often pressed the Russians and others about, hey, if you're in Syria to go after the Islamic State or Islamist militants, why aren't you in Idlib right now?

    But, of course, they went to Aleppo. They went to the strategically important areas in 2016 to try to consolidate their victory. And now they're more or less mopping up against some of the Islamist militants.

    Now, I will say, strategically, it's over. However, this conflict could last for quite some time. And there's still going to be quite a lot of suffering, especially in places like Idlib.

    But as we see, and as we see in every civil war in the region and elsewhere, all the factions, they're fighting with an eye towards what that postwar settlement looks like, towards who gets to be in control of which areas. And so I think it's likely that you are going to see some fighting for some time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And fighting for some time.

    And, Mona Yacoubian, we heard Rex Tillerson try and lay out what the U.S. strategy or what the U.S. goals perhaps were, including not only against ISIS and al-Qaida, but removing weapons of mass destruction, helping refugees, diminishing Iranian influence, resolving the underlying conflict. This is a long list.

    Is this a forever war for the U.S.?

  • Mona Yacoubian:

    Well, I think the secretary laid out a very ambitious plan.

    I think the reality is, the priority remains defeating ISIS and stabilizing those areas that have been liberated from ISIS. The other parts of what the secretary laid out I think are aspirational.

    I don't know that this is a forever war, but it is important to note that the secretary staked the U.S. military presence on the enduring defeat of ISIS and on a sort of a settled and peaceful Syria.

    That's going to — of course, as we have both noted, that's a long ways away.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so, Andrew Exum, is it really feasible to talk about all of these things, when the goal is still to defeat ISIS? ISIS is still there. It won't be there forever. Can the U.S. stay there long enough to actually accomplish these goals?

  • Andrew Exum:

    Yes, I think if I were to give the most charitable interpretation of Secretary Tillerson's really wish list that he laid out the other day, I think what he's trying to do is preserve options for the United States in Syria.

    He's not going to take anything off the table, not going to say that we don't care about the Assad regime, not going to say that we don't care about Bashar al-Assad stepping away from power, even though we know that the trajectory of the campaign is largely set in those terms.

    Also, keeping those U.S. forces on the ground, that also preserves options, in terms of pushing back against Iranian influence, but also continuing the fight against the Islamic State. The bottom line, it just gives you that option to continue to project power for the foreseeable future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Mona Yacoubian, last question.

    We cannot forget the humanitarian aspect of this war. Idlib is going to be very bloody. You were former USAID. Are we looking at another humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib?

  • Mona Yacoubian:

    Unfortunately, Nick, I think we are.

    Idlib has two million civilians in it, a million who are from there, a million who have already been displaced multiple times and have ended up there. Already with the fighting, we have seen more than 100,000 civilians displaced further north.

    And this is in the midst of winter conditions, no shelter. Unfortunately, I think we are going to see more displacement, more suffering as a result of the ongoing violence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mona Yacoubian, Andrew Exum, thank you very much.

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