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What Trump’s Syria withdrawal means for the Kurds, Russia and American allies

President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria has profound implications for stability both within Syria and throughout the Middle East. Nick Schifrin talks to the University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis and career diplomat Ted Kattouf of Amideast about how Trump has handled the move and what it means for Syrian Kurds, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other U.S. allies.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the volatile situation on the Syrian-Turkish border, where an American effort over the past five years devolved into new violence just in the last few days.

    Nick Schifrin is back with that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks, Judy.

    So, what do the latest developments in the fluid situation in Syria and Middle East mean?

    For that, we get two views from two longtime Syria watchers. Ted Kattouf was a career diplomat and served as ambassador to Syria under President George W. Bush. He's now president of Amideast, which promotes mutual understand of the Middle East. And Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma and runs the blog called SyriaComment.com.

    Thanks very much to you both.

    Ambassador Kattouf, let me start with you.

    The developments in the last few days, Turkish forces, Turkish-aligned forces moving south into Northern Syria, Syrian government forces moving north, now allied with former U.S. partners Syrian Kurds.

    How does that affect the U.S. stated goals in Syria, including the enduring defeat of ISIS and starting the political process?

  • Theodore Kattouf:

    Well, I remember that President Obama was severely criticized for pulling out of Iraq in 2011, and many people said that that pullout of the U.S. troops led to the rise of ISIS, although some have said it would have happened anyway had we stayed or not.

    But, clearly, there's a clear link between what has just happened and the potential for ISIS to reassert itself in various parts of Syria. And also besides Turkish-Kurdish clashes going on right now, and, of course, the Turks clearly having the upper hand over a militia group, we also have the potential for Syrian-Turkish fighting going on.

    The Turkish army, I believe, is much stronger than Syria's war-weary units. But you have Iran in the mix. You have Russia in the mix. It's a real — we have opened a Pandora's box.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Joshua Landis, wasn't that Pandora's box opened long ago, when this civil war started?

    And President Trump has talked about how the U.S. shouldn't be in forever wars. Do you think he has a point?

  • Joshua Landis:

    He absolutely has a point.

    Of course, the execution has been very ham-fisted. And I agree with Ted on that. But the notion of pulling out of Syria is, I think, well-made. And there's no good way to pull out of Syria.

    The real mistake was getting into Iraq and invading Iraq and turning over the apple cart in this region to begin with. But Americans don't see any benefit coming out of these wars.

    And it's now $5 trillion, according to some estimates, that have been spent in the Middle East over the last 20 years. I am sitting here at the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. And people are fed up. They want better roads. They are wondering why their schools aren't as good as they should be.

    And they wonder where the money has gone. In some ways, the elite in Washington, the foreign policy establishment, has become dissociated from the average American. And Trump is exploiting that. He's going to use it in order to try to — I think, obviously, try to win the elections.

    And this is what he ran on last time, and he's going to run on it again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Kattouf, the Trump administration also makes another point, which is that Turkey has been a NATO ally since 1952, has fought in every war alongside the U.S. since then, and the Kurds were simply a partner, a temporary one, at that, to help fight ISIS.

    So do those arguments have a point? Do the Turks have legitimate security interests here?

  • Theodore Kattouf:

    The Turks have legitimate security interests.

    And I also want to say I don't disagree with Joshua Landis that eventually we need to get out of these areas, get our troops out. But it's how it's done, the implementation, the impulse of the president, talking to Erdogan, and then just telling the Pentagon, the National Security Council, pull our troops back, leaving the Kurds totally exposed.

    And, by the way, this is not the first time we have betrayed the Kurds. You could go back to the San Remo conference of 1923.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Twenty-three.

  • Theodore Kattouf:

    If you want to look for original sins, that might be it, because 20 million Kurds have been left out of having their nation state of their own, and they're divided among four countries in that region.

    But this is a terrible betrayal. And our allies will not — our other allies will not fail to notice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Joshua Landis, I want to move to something that we have seen in the last few hours, this afternoon.

    President Trump has imposed sanctions on Turkey, and he's used language also that went even further than he did before. He talked about how the Turkish incursion precipitating a humanitarian crisis and setting the conditions for possible war crimes.

    The vice president just came out a few minutes ago talking — calling for a cease-fire and negotiations. Will this change Turkish behavior?

  • Joshua Landis:

    You know, Turkey — unfortunately, this has been so badly handled, that you would think that, if you're going to sell out the Kurds to Turkey, that you would get something in exchange, perhaps that Turkey would move closer to the United States, would get rid of its Russian missiles that it just bought.

    And — but that hasn't happened. And now the United States looks like it could be moving into a situation where it's putting sanctions on Turkey, it's throwing the Kurds under the bus. And you wonder, what are we coming away with? Very little.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Kattouf, on what happens next, you mentioned before there could be some confrontation between Turkey and Syria. How serious would that be?

  • Theodore Kattouf:

    It would be very serious.

    But I think Russia is going to play a role, a very important role, in all of this. Russia doesn't want to have to get its troops involved in defending Syria against Turkey. They're going to be talking to both sides. Both sides are going to listen to Russia.

    Erdogan is not going to be intimidated right now by sanctions, because he wants a cordon sanitaire. And it won't take him forever to get that done.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mean he wants a buffer zone right along that border.

  • Theodore Kattouf:

    Right. Exactly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And he's going to continue to do that, you think?

  • Theodore Kattouf:

    He will.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Joshua Landis, we just heard Ambassador Kattouf mention Russia.

    What is the state of Russian influence in Syria, and how does compare to U.S. influence right now?

  • Joshua Landis:

    Well, Putin's stock has gone up to the skies now.

    And Trump has collapsed in terms of Middle East. We see Putin has gone to Saudi Arabia today, first time a Russian president has gone to Saudi Arabia in over a decade. And he has a royal — he's getting the royal treatment.

    Everywhere, we see Middle Eastern countries turning to Russia. Israel has established close relations with Russia. So has Saudi Arabia. Iran, of course, is an ally. Syria, Turkey is an ally.

    So Russia — Putin, in many ways, is the man of the hour. He's become the statesman who can talk to everybody. Everybody's looking to him to help to attenuate the conflicts that seem to be multiplying in the Middle East. This is a bad moment for the United States.

    Trying to get out of the Middle East the way it has been has caused many people to distrust the United States and to wonder, are they an ally that will come to my aid in our time of need?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Joshua Landis, Ambassador Ted Kattouf, thank you very much to you both.

  • Theodore Kattouf:

    Pleasure.

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