Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is defending President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria hours after Turkey launched military operations against Syrian Kurds who were fighting ISIS alongside U.S. troops.
In an interview with PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, Pompeo indicated that the United States does not plan to defend its key partners in the fight against ISIS, the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces, despite warnings from a bipartisan group of lawmakers that Trump’s decision leaves them vulnerable to possible slaughter. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been threatening to attack the Kurds in northeast Syria for years, both to clear the area of people he perceives as enemies and to make way for Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey, whom he wants to resettle in the Kurdish-held northeast.
In 2015, U.S. forces partnered with the SDF in the fight against ISIS in northeast Syria.
The SDF, which functions under the Syrian Kurdish military, is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK. Turkey and the United States both designate the group–known as the PKK — as terrorists.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff that he’s “confident that President Trump understands the threat” from ISIS.
Pompeo appeared to echo Turkey’s perspective, which makes no distinction between Syrian Kurdish soldiers and the PKK, when he answered a question about whether Trump’s decision meant the United States no longer viewed the YPG as allies.
“The Turks had a legitimate security concern,” Pompeo said, justifying the Turkish incursion into northern Syria days after U.S. troops left. “They have a terrorist threat to their south. We’ve been working to make sure that we did what we could do to prevent that terror threat from striking the people in Turkey, while trying to achieve what is in America’s best interest: the threat from radical Islamic terrorism emanating from Syria.”
Pompeo said in Wednesday’s interview that the United States was leaving the area because it achieved its singular goal of eliminating ISIS’ territorial hold in Syria, which the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces played an instrumental part in reaching. Following the U.S.’ departure, the SDF has been defending northeastern Syria and guarding ISIS detainees in prisons and camps, but their commanders have said they will likely have to abandon their defensive posts in order to focus on the new threat from Turkey.
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers have pushed back against the country’s departure, saying it was unwise and unjust for America to leave Kurdish allies to defend themselves.
As Turkey launched Wednesday’s attacks,the Turkish incursion got underway, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., tweeted that the news from Syria was “sickening.”
“Impossible to understand why @realDonaldTrump is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered and enabling the return of ISIS,” she added.
Pompeo acknowledged that there is still an ISIS presence in Syria but characterized it as “remnants.”
“We have taken down the Caliphate,” he said, using the term to describe ISIS’ territorial presence. “There are ISIS remnants that remain. We’ll continue to be in a position to do what we need to do to keep the American people as safe as we possibly can from this threat.”
The SDF said it is guarding around 12,000 ISIS members in the northeast. Last month, an audio recording surfaced from a man believed to be fugitive Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which he urged followers to liberate detained fighters.
“The prisons, the prisons, oh soldiers of the caliphate,” a voice identified as al-Baghdadi, said. “Your brothers and sisters, do your utmost to free them and tear down the walls restricting them.”
The Defense Department Inspector General also warned recently that ISIS had established “resurgent cells” in Syria.
When asked whether, by leaving northeastern Syria, the United States was giving the greenlight to Turkey to attack the Kurds, Pompeo responded, “well, that’s just false. The United States didn’t give Turkey a green light.” He did not elaborate.
Pompeo was also asked about his opinion of the July call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which Pompeo had listened in on and which is now a focus of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry against the U.S. president.
The president’s critics say the call was a clear request for a foreign government to interfere in U.S. elections. When asked if Trump’s requests of Zelensky had been appropriate, Pompeo responded, “it was consistent with what President Trump has been trying to do to take corruption out. I found that to be wholly appropriate to try to get another country to stop being corrupt.”
He also compared it to other diplomatic efforts that countries undertake each day.
“Everyone keeps suggesting that somehow there was undue pressure. I assure you, countries all around the world every day call me to try and get America to behave in a way that’s in the best interest of their country. They try to apply pressure to me, and we work on it,” he said.