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What UK defense secretary thinks about Syria crisis, Huawei and U.S.-Taliban deal

Fighting between Turkey and Syria in Idlib has driven hundreds of thousands of refugees toward Syria’s border with Turkey. What obligation does NATO have to help member nation Turkey handle the ensuing humanitarian crisis? Nick Schifrin talks to Ben Wallace, the United Kingdom’s secretary of defense, about that, Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and the U.S.-Taliban deal in Afghanistan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, Turkey and Russia announced a cease-fire in Idlib, Syria, the final stronghold of fighters who are opposed to Syria's President Bashar al Assad.

    Turkey has been fighting in Idlib against Syria and its ally Russia. And that fighting has helped push refugees to the Syria-Turkey border, and, separately, to the Turkey-Greece border.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, today's cease-fire will likely be temporary, and refugee movement has become a crisis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For Syrian refugees, Europe's shores symbolize sanctuary.

    But, in recent days, families fleeing Turkey to reach Greece have been met by aggressive Greek military boats and even gunfire.

  • Man:

    We have children!

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And at the Greece-Turkey land border, refugees are rebuffed by concertina wire, armed Greek guards, and sometimes clouds of tear gas.

    Turkey has allowed, even encouraged these refugee families to head to the Greek border. That created hope, and then anger at the Greeks for blocking the border.

  • Khaled Jasem (through translator):

    What we care about is finding a safe place for our children. Where can we go? We don't have homes. We don't have work. We don't want anything. All we want is safety.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Safety from the war that's now being fought between Turkey, Syria, and Russia.

    In Idlib, Syria, Russian-backed Syrian government forces are fighting Turkish soldiers and Syrian rebels. Syria has killed almost 60 Turkish soldiers since January.

    Today in Moscow, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a de-escalation zone inside Syria and a cease-fire.

  • President Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    I express hope that these agreements will serve as good ground for a cease-fire in the Idlib de-escalation zone, will finally put an end to the suffering of the civilian population, and create conditions for a peace process in the Syrian Arabic republic.

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    Our goal is to prevent the worsening of the humanitarian crisis in the region. We will work together to supply aid for all the Syrians in need, without any precondition and discrimination.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But analysts say the cease-fire will prove temporary, and civilians now living in camps will remain caught in the crossfire.

    Hundreds of thousands face an advance by the Syrian regime and Russia, and have fled as close to the Turkish border as they can. But Turkey refuses to open this border.

    Syrian children whose country has been at war all their life bare the brunt. The International Rescue Committee says 60 percent of parents say their kids cry for no reason.

    These siblings fled airstrikes and were living in a police station. They had to flee from there, too. Aseel is 14.

  • Aseel (through translator):

    We were hit. The airstrikes hit the police station, and a few raids hit beforehand too. We are leaving our homes, so my siblings won't be afraid and my mother won't be scared.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Earlier this week, senior U.S. officials visited Idlib and pledged humanitarian aid and ammunition to Turkey. But, so far, the U.S. has declined Turkish requests for greater intervention.

  • Kelly Craft:

    Humanitarian aid is only a response. The real answer is an immediate cease-fire, a durable cease-fire.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But on the Greek border, and inside Syria, hundreds of thousands of refugees remain displaced, and a cease-fire doesn't replace their lost homes.

    Here with me now to discuss Syria, the refugee crisis and more is the United Kingdom's defense secretary, Ben Wallace, who's here in Washington, D.C., meeting with U.S. officials.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour," Mr. Secretary.

  • Ben Wallace:

    Thank you so much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's start with Syria.

    Does NATO have an obligation to assist Turkey in its fight against the Syrian regime and the Russian air force in Syria?

  • Ben Wallace:

    It has an obligation under Article V to any of its members, should they wish the seek to trigger that in collective self-defense.

    NATO also has an obligation to respond to any members' concerns. And that's why NATO has already had a session at its headquarters to discuss the emerging situation in Syria.

    And so I think NATO is doing what it can do. It's being supportive of Turkey, insofar as understanding the challenges it has and recognizing the security situation right on its border.

    So, I think NATO is fulfilling its obligations and will always continue to do so under its charter.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Turkey, of course, is a member of NATO, we should remind our viewers, and has asked for more, namely, Patriots, for example, from the United States.

    We saw President Erdogan make another deal with President Putin — of Turkey. This is not the first deal that the two has made.

    Is Idlib an opportunity for the U.S. or NATO to try and help Turkey more, and, in so doing, try and perhaps begin to reduce that Turkish-Russian partnership?

  • Ben Wallace:

    I think, certainly, what Turkey is learning, slightly the hard way, is that Russia is one of the most unreliable partners you can have.

    I think it's not an opportunity. I think it's really the chickens coming home to roost, that if you do a deal with Russia, count your fingers when you finish shaking hands.

    But I think what is more important is that the West , Europe, Britain, the United States, we do recognize and are very sympathetic to Turkey's current position. They are already a country full of 3.6 million refugees from that conflict. That's a huge amount for any one country to hold.

    They're a country who faced the direct consequences of a failed Syria. What can the U.S. and the U.K. do? Well, I think the first thing we can do is what we're going to do, which is, we're going to increase our aid to them. We're going to help with the aid for all those refugees to make sure that they are looked after.

    And then we can discuss with the Turkish what it is they think we could do to help. Now, I'm off to Turkey next week to visit. My foreign secretary went at the beginning of this week. And I think it's really important that we engage with Turkey, but in a spirit of de-escalation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's spin around the globe and cover some other issues.

    The United Kingdom has agreed to allow the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei into the periphery of the 5G system. Before that decision was made, I was reading an interview that you gave in which you said, "If we are going to allow the country's access to our market, we should expect a code of behavior that is fair play."

    What assurance do you have that Huawei will play fairly?

  • Ben Wallace:

    Well, we don't have that insurance, which is why there are two parts to this policy.

    First of all, our policy wasn't allowing them in. I mean, like, even some counties in parts of states in the United States, Huawei are already in our commercial networks.

    And that's partly because we in the West have failed to provide alternatives over the last few years. We felt that, having taken technical advice from our leading spy agency, the GCHQ, that we could mitigate its potential threat.

    We took the view to ban it from our sensitive national security network. So it is not in our defense networks, our intelligence networks, or all that all those places where we communicate with our allies and our ourselves.

    We're going to cap it in the more commercial normal consumer-facing parts of the network to 35 percent. And we're going to work to cut it out over time from the network and replace it or — or, as the network evolves, to make sure that it does not become an area that we're dependent on.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You reportedly opposed this decision. Why didn't you resign after it was made?

  • Ben Wallace:

    Look, I'm not going to comment on media speculative articles about national security conversations. They are classified. And, indeed, we — I'm part of a government that's collective.

    I think the reality is, we think, my experts have told me, technically, in the 5G, we can contain them.

    I think the bigger question for all of us in the West, and — is China. How do we change China's behavior? And as you said in the quote, if you want access to our markets and our universities, which, by the way, they are in the United States — they own Walmart, for example, the Chinese.

    All over our country, how do we change that behavior, where we see evidence of, obviously, espionage, I.P. theft, et cetera?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You praised the U.S.-Taliban agreement just signed because the withdrawal of U.S. troops, of NATO troops is conditions-based.

    But those conditions, as you know, in that agreement are not based on a reduction of violence on the ground long-term or even political progress between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

    Those conditions for withdrawal are based strictly on the Taliban renouncing al-Qaida. Are those conditions too narrow?

  • Ben Wallace:

    Well, I think there are more conditions than just that.

    And my counterpart, Secretary Mark Esper, said today that there are two part — two other parts of the deal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Although the U.S. has admitted there are two other parts that they're not publicizing.

  • Ben Wallace:


  • Nick Schifrin:

    But they are not going to change the fundamentals. They are just about implementation.

  • Ben Wallace:

    Well, the fundamentals are about the direction of travel to reduce violence.

    I mean, that has been part of the condition. And, as you saw previously, when those conditions were broken, President Trump said, that's it, it's done. He…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The last time that we came close to this deal, right.

  • Ben Wallace:

    The last time. He was very close. He was very clear about that, President Trump.

    And, in fact, as it's been reported in the media only yesterday, I think it was, there was an airstrike against threats in Afghanistan.

    People have criticized people for trying. We have to try. Young men and women from Britain and America and some of our allies died to try and bring peace to Afghanistan. If we don't try, then what has it all been for?

    But I absolutely hear people's concerns about the conditions. You know, it's got to be real. It's got to be deliverable. And it's got to be long-lasting.

    And that's why the U.K., alongside America, will make sure that any drawdown at the moment is in a position that's going to allow us to continue to take the war on terror, to fight the other threats, the Haqqani Network, and I.S. in other parts of that area that are a direct threat, and also that we make sure we work with the Afghan government to ensure that they can come to an accommodation with the Taliban.

    That's really important. But, from my point of view, and as I said in my public statement, this is a small step. We will do it step by step.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ben Wallace, defense secretary of the United Kingdom, thank you very much.

  • Ben Wallace:

    Thank you very much for having me.

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