U.S. Pulls Troops From Northern Syria Ahead Of Turkish Operation

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A convoy of US forces armoured vehicles drives near the village of Yalanli, on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij, on March 5, 2017. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)
A convoy of US forces armoured vehicles drives near the village of Yalanli, on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij, on March 5, 2017. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

In a stunning policy reversal, the U.S. pulls out of northern Syria ahead of an expected Turkish invasion. We unpack what it means for the Kurds, regional stability and U.S. foreign policy.


Missy Ryan, reporter covering the Pentagon, military issues and national security for the Washington Post. (@missy_ryan)

Dominic Evans, Reuters Turkey bureau chief. (@DominicJEvans)

Jennifer Cafarella, research director at the Institute for the Study of War. (@JennyCafarella)

Joshua Landis, author of Syria Comment, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. (@joshua_landis)

Interview Highlights

Caller Agit, from Vershire, Vermont, called into the program and shared his experience fighting in the International Freedom Battalion (IFB). He fought in the IFB in 2017.

“We Kurds have a long, historical memory. The only independent Kurdish state to ever exist, in the Republic of Mahabad, was supported by the Soviet Union. In 2017, when the Kurds in Iraq voted overwhelmingly in a referendum for independence, the U.S. and its allies said 'no' to it. And, of course, the Kurds don’t forget that the U.S. gave chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, which were used against the Kurds in Halabja, and elsewhere. While fighting there, I was very much of the opinion — as I still am — that the U.S. [and] NATO imperialism is one of the pivotal issues in the region. And, that the U.S. only used the Kurds in an alliance of convenience. And, I believe that the Kurds now have no choice but to go to Assad and Russia to provide for their security and safety. Or else, they will be decimated by the Turks — who are supported by the U.S. — and are, of course, the pivotal ally of NATO.”

What did you see while in the IFB? 

“The Kurdish forces were backed by the U.S. So, we saw U.S. planes, U.S. helicopters. Of course, we had the marines behind us in our Raqqa Phase 5 operation, with heavy artillery. And, of course, I saw some horrible things, too. The use of banned weapons, including white phosphorous, that was used in Raqqa. It was very disconcerting. Because, many of us who went as international fighters, went because of political convictions. Whether they be socialists, communists, anarchists."

"We saw a lot of really negative things. And, we felt that in the fight against ISIS, a lot of war crimes were committed. Just a lot of bad things on the ground. We felt that the U.S. was simply using all of its power — and military might — to get its objectives done, and to get out, and to sell us out again.”

How do you read this moment now? Are you critical of what the president has decided to do? 

“This moment, for me, and I think for other hevals, or comrades, was pre-ordained from the beginning. It was destined from the beginning. Because the U.S., as I illustrated before, was never really interested in safe-guarding the Kurds.”

From The Reading List

Washington Post: "Trump’s former ISIS envoy offers scathing critique of his Syria decision — and entire management style" — "Ever since former defense secretary Jim Mattis resigned over President Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria, he has declined to directly criticize or even address Trump’s decision-making as president.

"Brett McGurk is showing no such deference.

"McGurk, who served as Trump’s envoy for the fight against the Islamic State, lit into Trump early Monday over the White House’s announcement that it is essentially handing northern Syria over to Turkey — a decision many feel could lead to Turkey slaughtering the United States’ Kurdish allies in the region.

"McGurk took the occasion to not just criticize Trump’s immediate decision; he used it to cast a picture of a president who makes rash life-or-death decisions without the appropriate amount of thought. Essentially, he confirmed everything Trump’s critics worry about how the president prosecutes U.S. involvement in wars and conducts foreign policy."

Washington Post: "Trump pulls troops from northern Syria as Turkey readies offensive" — "The United States began withdrawing American troops from Syria’s border with Turkey early Monday, in the clearest sign yet that the Trump administration was washing its hands of an explosive situation between the Turkish military and U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters.

"President Trump, in a series of Twitter messages Monday, suggested that the United States was shouldering too much of the burden — and the cost — of fighting the Islamic State. He rebuked European nations for not repatriating citizens who had joined the extremist group, claiming that the United States was being played for a 'sucker.' And he chided his own Kurdish allies, who he said were 'paid massive amounts of money and equipment' to fight the militants.

"'It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN,' he tweeted."

USA Today: "'A stain on America's honor': Lindsey Graham says Trump's Syria pullout abandons Kurds, helps ISIS" — "Calling it a 'stain on America's honor,' Sen. Lindsey Graham on Monday denounced President Donald Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria as Turkey prepares a military assault against Kurdish fighters who helped the U.S. battle the Islamic State.

"Graham phoned into 'Fox & Friends,' which Trump is known to watch regularly, to express his displeasure at the 'impulsive decision by the president,' calling it 'short-sighted and irresponsible.' He said the move has 'undone all the gains we've made' and 'thrown the region into further chaos.'

"'This to me is just unnerving to its core,' Graham said.

"The U.S. backed Kurds under the Syrian Democratic Forces said their American allies "did not fulfill their obligations" as U.S. troops began to withdraw from their positions ahead of the expected Turkish military operation.

"Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers the Kurdish forces in Syria to be terrorists allied with Kurdish insurgents within his country and has long threatened a military incursion into the area."

Washington Examiner: "Opinion: Trump's Syria decision will be responsible for ISIS 2.0" — "Late Sunday night, the White House announced it would greenlight a Turkish incursion into northern Syria. 'Turkey will be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation. … Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area,' the press secretary stated after President Trump spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Erdoğan.

"Trump may believe that supporting the stable, self-governing entity which Syrian Kurds, Christians, Yezidis, and Arabs have created in northeastern Syria is not a U.S. interest. Frankly, realists may agree that morality has no place in foreign policy. They are wrong on both counts.

"What happens in Syria does not stay in Syria. If the past is precedent, the United States may find itself in unexpected conflict and may need to partner with indigenous forces. Any would be right to conclude that partnership with the U.S. is fleeting and perhaps even suicidal. Russia, in contrast, stands by allies even when they utilize chemical weapons.

"More broadly, blessing and enabling a Turkish operation into northern Iraq is to allow the resurrection of the Islamic State. Turkish leaders say the Syrian Defense Forces and various Kurdish militias are terrorist groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party."

This program aired on October 8, 2019.


Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


Sydney Wertheim Associate Producer, On Point
Sydney Wertheim is an associate producer for On Point.



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