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Weekend Reads: Debating the Syrian Pullback

Weekend Reads: Debating the Syrian Pullback

Hudson Institute

On the heels of a White House-brokered ceasefire in northern Syria, confusion over the region’s future still remains. This week Hudson convened an all-star panel moderated by PBS Newshour producer Ali Rogin to debate the consequences of President Trump’s decision to pullback US forces.

Below, we’ve highlighted some of the insightful perspectives shared by Mary Beth Long, former assistant secretary of defense, General Mark Kimmit, former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, Michael Doran, Hudson senior fellow and former senior director of the NSC, and Blaise Misztal, Hudson fellow and former executive director of the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States.

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Watch the Debate


Key Takeaways on the Syria Pullback

Mary Beth Long, former assistant secretary of defense, on the Syrian defense forces:

We're allowing the slaughter of not only Kurds, but the Syrian defense forces are actually a majority Arab these days. The Kurd membership is almost equaled by the Christian and Yazidi and Turkmen membership. That is borne out by the Wilson Center survey of Syrian defense forces that overwhelmingly conclude that the majority of Syrian defense forces are overwhelmingly Arab, then the Kurds, then Christians, with a few Turkmen and Yazidis. The Syrian defense forces are no longer - and haven't been for a while - equal to the YPG. That's the Turkish narrative that they want us to believe, and it's just not accurate.

Blaise Misztal, Hudson fellow and former Executive Director of the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, on the real purpose of the 1,000 US troops in Syria:

We had 1,000 troops that we were spending $1.25 billion on a year. That's a drop in the bucket in terms of what we spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, what we spend on overseas operations generally. Their purpose was twofold. One was continued counter-ISIS operations. But the thing we were not honest with ourselves about is that 1,000 forces were in northern Syria to protect against Iranian expansion into that territory. It was about making sure that Assad and Iran were not able to take control of the major oil-producing areas of Syria, which would help fund the reconstruction and their continued grasp on power. It was to make sure that there was not a land corridor, particularly through the Abu Kamal and Tanf area along the Iraqi border that was established to allow Iran to continue funneling weapons and fighters and money, both to Assad and to Hezbollah.

Michael Doran, Hudson senior fellow and former senior director of the NSC, on the top Turkish priority:

The No. 1 concern of the Turks is the PKK. If we don't address that to their satisfaction, then this is what we're going to get. I think that this was inevitable on the basis of how we approached all of this. The question now is, how do we get out of it? And I think it has to be through U.S. and Turkish relations.

Mark Kimmit, former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, on Turkey’s long-term motivation:

Turkey has, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, absorbed a significant amount of refugees. It is a drag on the economy. Turkey has a fairly weak economy in the first place and has gone out of their way to try to host those Syrian refugees to the capacity that it can. So, yes, they wanted a security buffer zone. Yes, they still want a security buffer zone of 30 kilometers. But they also want a place where they can resettle a significant number of those Syrians who have gone into Turkey to relieve that burden.

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity


“We understood there was going to be a problem”: The US-YPG Alliance

General Mark Kimmit, former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, explains how the US-YPG alliance came about at Hudson’s Syria debate:

ISIS attacked into Iraq in 2014, there was a recognition that you couldn't just go against the nose; you had to go against the tail of ISIS. That meant getting in there and defeating the caliphate.

We needed to find an alternative fighting force. That alternative fighting force was this scrappy group called the YPG that was operating outside of Kobani. In December 2015, we dropped air supplies in. They proved to be good fighters. We decided to work with them. But we understood that there was going to be a problem. The problem was going to be Turkey because this is a PKK-affiliated group, according to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. So we had to figure out how to finesse this.

We told the Turks, and our policy was that this relationship with the PKK, with the YPG was going to be temporary, it was going to be transactional, and it was going to be tactical. That was the American policy at that time, expressed numerous times. It didn't mean that we were long-term allies of the YPG. It meant that we had a specific purpose for a specific time, and at the end of that, we were going to break apart. There was mutual benefit. The YPG had many, many Kurdish towns in that area that they were trying to defend against ISIS. We wanted to kill ISIS. So what happens? ISIS is defeated by a brilliant job done by both the YPG on the ground and the American support provided there. At that point, the mission was over.

But all of a sudden, our good-hearted people on the ground started thinking, we need to - what we would simply call engage in mission creep of a massive amount that I've never seen before. We were in there under the authority for the use of military force - counter ISIS, and counter ISIS alone.

We started nation-building. We started humanitarian operations. We were going to build a 40,000-man police force so they could be the local police. And there's no doubt in my mind that that would have been a multiyear operation. And then on top of that, there would be a Syria resolution.

Our policymakers on the ground, good-hearted as they may have been, were setting the United States up for a multiyear, if not decade-long operation, in complete violation of their authority for the use of military force. It's that simple. They got ahead of their headlights.

They were making promises on the ground to the YPG that they couldn't back up. So where do we find ourselves? We find ourselves enthralled and in love with an organization that every time they have a press conference has a map of - has a picture of Ocalan behind it and the map of Rojava alongside of it. So this was untenable. It was unsustainable.


Go Deeper: Hudson Experts on the Syrian Pullback

WATCH – Interview: A Diplomatic Victory?

Peter Rough joins CBC to discuss the US bid to broker peace in Northern Syria and the military advantages provided to the US by preserving an alliance with Turkey.

LISTEN – Interview: A Gift to ISIS

Michael Pregent joins The World to discuss the Turkish military offensive and prison breaks that have resulted in over 800 escaped ISIS detainees.

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