Pentagon Says U.S. Has Begun Its Withdrawal From Syria

Jan 11, 2019
Originally published on January 11, 2019 7:29 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Pentagon early this morning announced U.S. forces were beginning their withdrawal from Syria. That's all a spokesman would say out of concern for what he called operational security. President Trump took many people including his own military leaders by surprise last month when he ordered the withdrawal. He tweeted that ISIS had been defeated, and the U.S. would be getting out now. Since then, others in the administration have said it could be months or when ISIS is defeated - so, yes, mixed messages with real repercussions in the region.

We're going to hear from one of the Kurdish allies of the U.S. who could be in danger as troops leave. But first we're going to bring in NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here with me in Washington. Hey there, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: And NPR's Ruth Sherlock - she's speaking to us from Beirut. Hey there, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

CORNISH: So Tom, let's start with you because the president's announcement, needless to say, caused confusion - right? - the resignation of the defense secretary. Was there a policy or strategy behind that tweet?

BOWMAN: No, it all seemed very knee-jerk. And I'm told it's - continues to cause confusion in the White House and also at the Pentagon. I'm told the president wanted all U.S. troops out within a month. The military said, we can't do it that quickly. And also, ISIS has not been defeated even though the president of course said they have been defeated. Now, the order to leave now has changed. There are estimates it will take at least several months to defeat the remainder of ISIS, so that's where we are now.

CORNISH: On the ground, what does that mean? We've been told - right? - that this is the beginning of the withdrawal.

BOWMAN: Right. The military put out a statement today saying they're beginning what they call a deliberate withdrawal from Syria. Colonel Sean Ryan, a spokesman, said he would not talk about timelines or locations, troop movements. But there's a report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights - that's a monitoring group based in London - their people on the ground in Syria say they saw 10 American vehicles heading out of Syria to Iraq, and they estimated about 150 U.S. forces leaving. That's out of 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. But one military officer I spoke with said, hey, this is cosmetic. The bulk of the U.S. troops will remain to defeat ISIS. And again, you're looking at perhaps several months.

CORNISH: All right, Ruth, so you and Tom have been to the part of Syria where U.S. troops have been fighting ISIS. Can you give us the lay of the land? What is the situation at this point?

SHERLOCK: Well, in some areas, ISIS still has territory, and the fight is ongoing against them. And then the other areas that the Kurds have managed to take control of - you know, there's so much destruction there - entire cities and towns destroyed that need rebuilding, many thousands of people who've been displaced from their homes and are still living in camps.

And these Kurdish allies who have lost thousands of people fighting alongside the U.S. against ISIS - they're now worried that Turkey is going to attack them as it's done in other areas. You know, Turkey sees them as terrorists because they're aligned to Kurdish militants that fight the Turkish government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been in the Middle East this week trying to reassure allies here. He talked about the Kurds and the threats that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made against them.

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MIKE POMPEO: These have been folks that have fought with us, and it's important that we do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected. And Erdogan has made commitments. He understands that - I think he uses the language - he talks about - he has no beef with the Kurds. We want to make sure that that's the case, and I'm confident that as Ambassador Jeffreys (ph) and others travel through the region in the days ahead, we'll make real progress on that.

CORNISH: OK, so earlier today, I ran that by a representative from one of the Syrian Kurdish groups, the Syrian Democratic Council. Her name is Sinam Mohamad. She spoke to us on a pretty rough line from Dubai. She told us that they are very worried about Turkey. But first let's listen to her reaction to that pledge from Secretary Pompeo.

SINAM MOHAMAD: This is really good news to hear about it. But still we are even in need to know. How could the U.S. convinced Turkey not to attack our people, and how could we know about the mechanism of doing all these things to guarantee the safety of the allies of the United States, which is the SDF?

CORNISH: But is there confusion? Are you hearing the same thing on the ground that you're hearing, say, from Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, or what you're hearing out in the news from the U.S. president?

MOHAMAD: No, we are hearing something better, something different now. They are telling we are going to withdraw as soon as possible; we are going to withdraw very slowly until we guarantee the safety of the Kurdish people or the Kurdish allies or our people - is the SDF.

CORNISH: What are you asking the Trump administration to do specifically?

MOHAMAD: We are asking them to include us in the political process in Geneva talks.

CORNISH: And this is regarding the peace negotiation with Syria.

MOHAMAD: Yes. And we are asking also to be included in the committee which is being established for the constitution of the Syria and to protect us from the Turkish - to stop Turkish from attacking our region or to create a new conflict part in the area.

CORNISH: You mentioned wanting to be a part of the conversation about the constitution in Syria after the war. Is the solution for you to be back fully under the government of Syria? Have you given up on trying to maintain autonomy?

MOHAMAD: We - you know, from the beginning, we are not planning for separating from Syria or dividing Syria. We want to have a new Syria for all of the Syrian people, a democratic system in Syria.

CORNISH: Is there a scenario where you can count on Syria to protect you from Turkey?

MOHAMAD: You mean the regime of Syria.

CORNISH: Yes.

MOHAMAD: Yes, we would like to have such (unintelligible) if they accept this on the new Syria, new democratic Syria, not as they wanted to have like their mentality before 2011.

CORNISH: Again, that's Sinam Mohamad from the Syrian Democratic Council. That's a U.S. ally. And she's saying that the Kurds are trying to make a deal with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. This is a leader that has been called the butcher of Damascus. The U.S. has asked him to step down. The U.S. has attacked his regime with missile strikes.

So Ruth, are we seeing a realignment of loyalties here, one that essentially gives Assad the upper hand?

SHERLOCK: This is complicated because the Kurds don't immediately want to jump into bed with the Syrian government. You know, they were historically marginalized as an ethnicity in Syria, and there are thousands of people living in these areas that are actually wanted by the Syrian government. But I think they realize that if the U.S. leaves, they'll be exposed. And they do need to strike a deal with some power to ward off a Turkish offensive, and the Syrian regime is winning this war in Syria. It's retaken much of Syrian territory, and it's doing so with the help of Russia and Iran.

CORNISH: Tom, where does this head next in the Pentagon and Washington?

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon will carry out the order from President Trump to leave. And again, it will take a few months, it looks like. And on Capitol Hill, the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Democrat Adam Smith, is expected to hold hearings in the coming weeks on Syria because, again, Audie, this is all very confused. We don't know the way ahead. He's going to try to get to the bottom of it.

Here's another thing. The Pentagon has long said it will train a local security force of some 30,000 to 40,000 to help patrol after the U.S. leaves. We don't know if that will still happen. And it may be that the Syrian regime will take over this area.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

CORNISH: And NPR's Ruth Sherlock speaking to us from Beirut - Ruth, thank you.

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