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Criticism Increases Over Trump's Military Strategy Shift In Syria


Shortly - that's the word from a top Turkish official describing the timeline for a Turkish military incursion across the border into Syria. This comes just days after President Trump ordered the removal of U.S. troops from that same border area. The president's critics and many of his supporters say it's a dangerous mistake. The concern is that Turkey will then attack the Kurdish forces who have been helping the U.S. fight ISIS. We spoke with the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian democratic forces yesterday. He was talking through his own interpreter. His name is General Mazloum Kobani Abdi. He told me that he believes an attack on his people is imminent.


MAZLOUM KOBANI ABDI: (Through interpreter) The Turks going to attack, and they're preparing for a long time. The Turks going to invade, they're going to penetrate the border, and they're going to take a part of Syrian soil.

MARTIN: We're going to walk through the consequences of the U.S. troop withdrawal from that border area with Douglas Ollivant. He's the former director for Iraq at the National Security Council. He served in both administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and is now a senior fellow at the think tank New America. Thanks so much for coming in.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this isn't the first time the president has announced a troop withdrawal from Syria; he did so last December. And when we spoke with you then, you said that although you had issues with the implementation, that the policy was the right one. What about now? Is this the right move?

OLLIVANT: Well, the situation in the Middle East is more unstable now. We've - it's - time has gone on. We've had demonstrations going on in Baghdad. We've started to learn just how bad the conditions are in the al-Hol prison camp. So there are mitigating factors. But at the end of the day, the president does seem to have his fingers on the pulse of what the American people want. He's made his wishes very, very clear. And it appears to me that nothing has been done to change the situation on the ground.

The - it's not like we've told the Syrian Kurds to go get a political accommodation with the Turks, go get a political accommodation with the Assad regime. They've just been left out there as their own thing, and the plan seems to have been to stay there forever. And that's not a plan.

MARTIN: Well, isn't that also up to the president? I mean, it's his State Department that would facilitate some kind of sit-down with the Kurds and the Syrian regime.

OLLIVANT: That is also true. But it doesn't appear anyone has come to him with options to change the political facts on the ground.

MARTIN: Well, how much of this is just about the president making his own decisions unilaterally? I mean, he said he consulted with all the parties involved, but two Pentagon officials told NPR that the Pentagon was totally caught off guard. I mean, does it surprise you that the top brass at the Pentagon or perhaps the State Department weren't apprised of this decision?

OLLIVANT: Well, this decision in this particular moment, sure. But again, it's not like the Pentagon doesn't know that the Pentagon - that the president is really unexcited about this idea and this mission.

MARTIN: You're saying that they should have been prepared; they should have been anticipating this.

OLLIVANT: They should have been doing some due diligence on what are the options to mitigate this option.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the consequences of this. President Trump insists that he hasn't sold out the Kurds, and he has threatened to totally destroy and obliterate Turkey's economy - his words - if Turkey does anything off limits. Do you think Turkey is going to go into Syria and really just focus on ISIS, when they have not even been able to keep ISIS from crossing into Syria across their own border?

OLLIVANT: Well, I don't think they're going to come in and go to ISIS because there doesn't appear to be much ISIS in the places they intend to go to. The Turks are very clear on this. They're not that concerned about ISIS; they're concerned about the YPG, which they rightly consider to be loosely affiliated with the PKK...

MARTIN: But they...

OLLIVANT: ...Which is a designated terror organization of both the Turks and the United States. So it's not like they're just, you know, designating someone willy-nilly here. And they very much want a buffer zone put into place. It appears that what they're trying to do is create a buffer zone of Turkish-affiliated Arabs, mostly refugees from elsewhere in Syria, and put them in this 10-, 20-, however-many-mile buffer zone that we're going to see on the border between Turkey and Syria. So they would want Turks, then a band of friendly Arabs and then and only then the YPG Kurds on the other side.

MARTIN: But the actual physical caliphate of ISIS has been destroyed, but that doesn't mean that the entire ISIS threat has been obliterated. I mean, we've got Kurdish forces who are currently guarding a whole lot of ISIS detainees. If the Kurds are forced to go protect their families from a Turkish invasion, they're just going to let those guys go.

OLLIVANT: That's right. That's the huge wild card in this situation. The Kurds are guarding about 2,000 fighters, we think, but up to 70,000 family members - women, children, extended families and so on. So that's a lot of people, certainly enough to regenerate some ISIS capability were they just to walk away and let those people go. I don't think they're just going to walk away and let those people go, but there may be a lot more people exfiltrating and escaping from those camps should they have to pull those fighters from guarding the camps to come north and fight against the Turks.

MARTIN: So do you think this is the right move? Do you think the president made the right decision in this moment?

OLLIVANT: I think that the president could have staffed this better - said, what are we going to do? OK, you know, Erdogan wants this to happen. We're going to back his play. What are we going to do about the al-Hol prison camp? How do we mitigate that? None of that staff work appears to have happened.

MARTIN: So you're not sure on the overall administration strategy when it comes to Syria?

OLLIVANT: That's a safe statement.

MARTIN: Doug Ollivant was the director for Iraq at the National Security Council. He is now a senior fellow at New America. Thanks for your time.

OLLIVANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.