Heritage Foundation foreign policy expert Jim Carafano weighs in on President Donald Trump’s decision to move troops around in Syria, after talking with the Turkish president. Carafano explains how this will affect the Kurds, whether it could boost ISIS, and why we’re in Syria in the first place. Read the lightly edited interview transcript, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
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Kate Trinko: So, amid the news, the U.S. is pulling troops out of the area of Syria near the Turkish border. There’s been an uproar. President Trump came under fire from several top Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell. Sen. Rand Paul, on the other hand, applauded Trump’s move.
Joining us today to discuss and explain is Jim Carafano, who is the vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Jim, thanks for joining us.
Jim Carafano: Good to be with you.
Trinko: First off, when did U.S. troops first go to Syria and what was the purpose?
Carafano: So if you remember under President Obama, we still had a very significant U.S. presence in Iraq. That was the result of the Second Iraq War, and about 2011, we made a decision to withdraw all those troops.
After we withdrew all those troops, there was a resurgence of an Islamist uprising in Iraq and that linked with an insurgency in Syria. And that became known as a group that’s known as ISIS and established what they called the historical caliphate and, indeed, the capital of the caliphate was in Syria.
So, under President Obama, we sent troops, not just back into Iraq to help deal with combating ISIS, but we also started to send troops into Syria.
When President Trump came in office, he actually expanded the U.S. footprint in Syria, because military advisers made the argument that … you couldn’t take down the caliphate—in other words, destroy the physical state that the terrorist had—if we didn’t actually have forces in there working with indigenous groups that were fighting ISIS, chief among them, the YPG, which is a armed Kurdish group.
And so President Trump actually increased the U.S. footprint in Syria. Then subsequent to that, after the caliphate was destroyed, the president wanted to withdraw U.S. troops. The military advisers and several allies, including Israel, said, “Well, look, there’s still concerns that need to be addressed.” So we’ve maintained a small footprint in Syria for the last year or so.
Trinko: About how many American troops are in Syria right now? And up until this point, what was the end game? What were we looking for to happen before we went through them?
Carafano: That’s a great question.
We don’t have exact numbers on U.S. forces and where they are. That’s not surprising. These are ongoing military operations. They don’t necessarily advertise exactly who’s where and what they’re doing. But we estimate it’s a relatively small print of a few hundred Americans in uniform that are spread around the areas that are not controlled by the Syrian government.
So the question is, why should they stay there? What are they there for? And when can they leave? And normally when you start with a question of what are our interests? What are we trying to accomplish to protect America’s interests? And then the question is, well, how long do you have to do that? And the decision is based on conditions—not necessarily on a calendar or a specific date. But when the conditions concerning American security are met. And [we really have three concerns with Syria.]
And this is with today. We can talk about what happened last week, last month, last year, a decade ago, doesn’t matter. That’s all in the past. Those are sunk costs. Can’t do anything about that. All we can do is deal with the security of Americans into the future.
So our concerns are, No. 1: We don’t want another caliphate. The last thing we would want is that the terrorist groups would be able to coalesce, build a state-like group in Syria like they had before, or like we saw in Afghanistan before 9/11, where they couldn’t … just not attract thousands of foreign fighters from around the world to build up an army of transnational Islamist terrorists, but where they could direct and raise money and focus operations aimed at attacking the United States like we saw happen on 9/11, like we saw ISIS tried to do against the United States.
We don’t want a return to the caliphate, that’s No. 1. We don’t want an organized terrorist group sitting in the middle of the Middle East.
No. 2: … We want the problems of Syria to stay in Syria. If you remember a couple of years ago, we had millions of refugees flooding into Western Europe destabilizing our key allies, flooding into the region. Destabilizing important countries like Jordan and flooding them with … terrorists actually infiltrating in the refugee flows to these other countries in those refugee flows trying to sneak into the United States.
So, we don’t want more of that. We don’t want mass refugee flows. We want the war in Syria to remain contained in Syria.
The third [thing] is we don’t want Iran to be able to establish a platform in Syria that they can really use to threaten Israel, which is our closest ally in the Middle East.
If you remember, the Syrian government is in many ways a surrogate for Iranian influence and control. They rely on the Iranians to keep them in power. They rely on the Iranians and the Russians to fund them and arm them.
Under the guise of supporting the Syrians, the Iranians have been moving more and more military assets personnel into Syria. And not just using that to defend Assad and his regime—[Bashar] Assad, the president of Syria—but also to build logistical lines, like a super highway to hook up with Hamas, which is a terrorist group in Lebanon, and then directly to create another platform to threaten to attack Israel.
So, what do we have to do? We don’t want a caliphate, we don’t want masses of refugees, and massive genocide and human rights challenges flooding into the region. And we don’t want Iran to use Syria as a platform to attack Israel.
Now, that doesn’t answer the question of how many troops do we need and how long do we need them there? But what it does say is the troops that we have there, are they materially contributing to this mission? And if they are, there’s an argument that they should stay. If they aren’t, there’s an argument they should leave.
Trinko: OK, so let’s move to the news we got this week. We know that President Trump had a call with the Turkish president. After that call, he announced, as you said, we don’t know the exact locations, but American troops would not be in the part of Syria near the Turkish border.
This was widely interpreted as saying Turkey could invade. The administration has pushed back and said, “No.” President Trump tweeted a very intense tweet saying that Turkey was not going to be allowed to do whatever it wanted.
So, how should we interpret these events and why, if not to allow a Turkish invasion, would the U.S. move these troops out of this area?
Carafano: Right. Let’s start by what the Turks are doing. They’re not invading Syria. There is a portion of Syria which borders Turkey, which right now is kind of uncontrolled. Nobody really controls the port. The Syrian government doesn’t control the border. There are Kurdish groups in that area and the Turks wanted to control that area. It’s several kilometers wide, so it’s really a small chunk of Syria.
Why do they want to control it? Well, one, they don’t want it to be a platform for Kurdish terrorist groups, not the Kurdish people. There’s a difference, right? There are Kurds all over the region. There are Kurds in Iran. There are Kurds in Iraq. There are Kurds in Syria. There are Kurds in other places. So when you say the Kurds, that’s a lot of people spread all over the Middle East, but there are Kurdish groups which are affiliated with specific terrorist groups, like the PKK, which is a terrorist group [that] … focuses on attacking Turkey.
So they don’t want terrorist groups to use that area as a platform to attack Turkey. They want to control their border and they would like to create a space because they have probably a million refugees or more from Syria that are living in Turkey. The Turks would like to create a space so those people can move back into Syria. It’s a relatively limited objective that the Turks have outlined.
What did the U.S. do? Well, if you actually read the statement of the Department of Defense, which actually explains this, we didn’t give permission for the Turks to do this. They didn’t ask permission. And the reality is we can’t stop them from doing this. We have a couple of hundred soldiers in the entire country. We don’t have enough … to prevent the Turks from doing anything unless we’re going to start bombing the Turkish military, which I don’t think we’re going to do.
So they didn’t ask our permission. They said they were going to do this and what we did, which was actually probably appropriate, [was] we made sure that Americans weren’t in harm’s way, so if things went bad, our guys wouldn’t get hurt.
We should be really clear here, because what the U.S. government did [is] they said, “Look, you’re going in here. You are responsible for what you do. There are civilians in there. Protecting those civilians … that’s your job now.”
There are thousands of ISIS fighters detained in that area. If you wind up taking control of them, you’re responsible for them. If those guys … get out and they’re running around the country, you have to capture them and then detain them because if those guys, bad guys, spill out, that’s your fault. …
I don’t think we left the Turks off the hook at all. And here’s what I would very clearly say, if the Turks do what they said they’re going to do, I think it’s actually good for everybody. If they screw this up, let’s be really clear here, the people that are responsible is the Turkish government.
Trinko: You mentioned the Kurds and how some Kurds are members of terrorist groups. So what has the U.S.’ relationship with the Kurds been like over the years and how have we been working, or not working, with them in Syria? … One of the big objections against this has been the [U.S. and the Kurds becoming friends]. How can you do this? So let’s delve into that a little bit.
Carafano: Yeah. The first thing I would say is the United States has been a great friend to the Kurdish people. And there is no population on earth that is more appreciative of America, that more wants to be like America, than Kurds.
There is a massive Kurdish population in Iraq. It’s really almost a semi-autonomous little country onto itself. That is the most pro-American place on earth. They believe in free enterprise. They believe in democracy. They believe in human rights. They host other refugee populations. They would be the 51st state if we let them, right?
The United States has spent a lot of time and effort helping the Kurdish people, and as you know, Iraq is a fragmented country. There’s Shias, there’s Sunnis, there are Kurds. We’ve done an awful lot to help those groups get along with each other and we’ve invested enormous resources and had great success in having the Iraqi Kurds establish a productive working relationship with the Turkish Kurds. So there’s a significant Kurdish population in Syria, which is similar.
Now, among that, there are political groups and there are armed groups. … The one we’re talking about specifically is called the YPG, which is a subset of a group called the SDF. They are an armed militia that we partnered with to help fight ISIS and to track down ISIS guys and detain them. And indeed, they’re detaining many of these guys. They’re not an ally. … They’re very, very good fighters. That doesn’t make them nice guys.
To be fair, defeating the caliphate as rapidly as we did under President Trump would not have been possible without arming them. Having said that, they’re not an ally of the United States. We don’t really owe them anything, other than we made a transactional deal to work with them to defeat the caliphate. And we have transactional deals to help them when they do [things that are] helpful to us. As long as we’re fulfilling that obligation, that transactional obligation, I think we’re OK.
People always say, “Well, the Turks are going to kill these guys.” Well, if the YPG … has a war with the Turkish military, yeah, they probably will shoot each other. One of the things that the United States could do is help broker that because they shouldn’t be fighting each other. And the Turks have legitimate concerns about terrorists.
So I think the United States does have a positive political role to play in kind of brokering relations between Kurdish groups in Syria and the Turks, and we have a good track record of that.
Again, I think the presumption that this is doom and gloom and we’ve left our allies to die—I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence for that. I think there are fair, legitimate concerns that this could not go well. There are things the United States can do to help talk to both sides, to mitigate some of that. And there’s a lot the United States can do to put a spotlight on the Turks to hold them accountable for what they do in Syria.
If you go back to the first question, what are we there for? That’s actually the best way to protect our interests.
We have limited interest in Syria, we have limited capabilities, and we have limited influence. The question is how to use that best? These people that talk about a couple of hundred soldiers—which to be honest, are a speed bump to bad actors in that country—they’re not going to end the war in Syria. They’re not going to solve the problem. They’re not going to protect the Kurds.
The U.S. can be a limited force for good, and the question is, how do we do that? How do we best leverage our footprint to be a limited force for good?
And I would just add to that, the one thing the president never said is, “I’m pulling every American troop out of Syria.” He offered to do that before and people convinced him it was a bad idea. He’s agreed that … if there were things that U.S. troops in Syria need to do to be helpful, they should stay and do that. That policy that our president annunciated, that policy has not changed.
Trinko: President Trump tweeted on Tuesday that the president of Turkey, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, was going to be coming to Washington in November. What do you think they should focus on in that meeting?
Carafano: There’s a lot of issues they could talk about, both good and bad, and I always think it’s great. I think our president is very courageous. … If there’s somebody [who thinks their] relationship with the United States is important, he will talk to them and he doesn’t care if he gets criticized for it or yelled at or anything. He’ll have an honest conversation with that person. I think that’s great.
There are good things and bad things in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and I think they’re all worth discussing. Making sure Turkey understands it’s accountable for what it does in Syria, that to me would be kind of line one.
The Turkish government has been very insistent that they want to buy an air defense system. That they’ve already purchased this. They’ve already had a part of it [delivered], called the S-400, built by the Russians. Turkey was also a partner in the F-35, which is our modern fighter program. Those are not compatible.
If you turn on an S-400, it just tells you too much about an F-35 to make … us feel comfortable. It basically compromises the mission of the aircraft. … You can fly against them, as they’re the bad guys and we’re the good guys. But you can’t fly in an area where the S-400 treats the F-35 like a good guy because that means it knows everything about the F-35 and then you can turn that against it.
It doesn’t matter that the Turks own the system and the Russians don’t. The Russians will get all that information, right? So, U.S. policy has been, if you really want to buy this S-400, you cannot have the F-35. I think it’s a bad deal for Turkey. The F-35 is a tremendous aircraft. The S-400 is an OK air defense system.
Turkey really doesn’t need an air defense system. What they really need is really good fighter jets. There’s a way to resolve that issue, and the way to resolve it is for the Turks to shelve the S-400. They should talk about that, because in the long run, it’s in the best interest of Turkey, not to mention best interest for the United States.
We got to talk about the difficult things. We have these ISIS detainees, they don’t need to be running around loose. Obviously, they can’t be tortured, … but they don’t need to be running around where they can hurt people. … Many of them are actually Europeans, and the Europeans maybe very sensibly say, “We don’t want these guys back.” We have to do something with them. And U.S. and Turkey have to work on that problem together.
Trade. Turkey’s economy is in horrible shape. Say what you want about Erdogan, I think he’s actually very bad at foreign policy, but he’s even worse as an economic leader. I think Turkey’s economy is not doing well. U.S.-Turkish trade, there’s a lot of constructive positive things we could do. So that is a pretty full agenda. I could absolutely see where it’s worthwhile for Erdogan to come here [to sit down with] the president.
Trinko: OK. A few more questions. Sen. Lindsey Graham said of Trump’s decision [that] this decision virtually reassures the reemergence of ISIS. Are you worried about that happening?
Carafano: Well, I am worried about ISIS and al-Qaeda, globally. This is kind of a good news, bad news story. … We’ve learned a lesson on this, regardless of what you thought of the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan and Bush and everything else, by the end of Bush’s term, we had put a lot of pressure on al-Qaeda and groups like ISIS. And the threat of transnational terrorism subsided significantly.
President Obama benefited [from that when he] came in office. And about halfway through his first term, he basically kind of decided the war on terror was over. So he pulled the troops out of Iraq. We backed off in a lot of areas, and basically what we saw is, if you think of those scenes where there’s a forest fire and then the fire’s out and everybody leaves and then the sparks flare up and the forest fire kicks in again, that’s exactly what happened.
So we went from a very high level of terror, global terrorist threat, to a low level, to essentially walking away from the problem and see it reignite. And when Trump came back in office, we did a significant job of kind of putting the forest fire out again.
The challenge now is we have to watch the embers. I’m sympathetic of what Sen. Graham says, if we walk away from worrying about transnational terrorism, it’ll definitely come back. Where I would differ is what’s the most efficacious way to do that? …
There’s an argument [of] let’s have American troops everywhere doing everything. There’s a better argument, I think, which the president has made, which is, there are things that we should be doing, there are things that our friends and allies should be doing, and we should all be working at keeping watch to make sure the fire doesn’t come back together.
In the end, that’s more sustainable and will also be more effective. So I’m not sure that Sen. Graham’s right, that the answer is we put American troops everywhere all the time because we’re worried about forest fires.
Trinko: You briefly mentioned Russia. Obviously, Syria is in the Middle East. If Turkey does make this move to, as you say, more control their border with Syria, does this have a ripple effect into the Middle East in regional stability and also potentially globally with Russia and everyone else?
Carafano: … Stability in the Middle East is important to the United States. The United States is a global power with global interests and global responsibilities. Europe, the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific, the places we’re very active in, they connect us to the world. That’s why we’re there. We don’t need the Middle East to be the land of milk and honey. Everybody doesn’t have to be dancing the flowers, but it has to be stable, and it has to be not falling apart, … and there can’t be big wars, and refugees can’t be flooding out, and oil can’t be burning in giant bonfires.
So keeping the problems in Syria is important. Turkey does have a role to play to that. Having said that, Turkey’s a pivotal player, but they’re not the only player in the Middle East.
They’re not the only player in NATO and Europe, yet they do have a relations with the Russians and the Iranians, but the problem .. for Turkey is they can’t be everybody’s friend all the time.
The reality is what’s best for Turkey is actually what’s best for the United States, which is a peaceful Western Europe, a peaceful Middle East. Who are the two biggest agitators to that? Iran and Russia. So at the end of the day, the Turks can have relations with the Russians and the Iranians. I get that. They’re neighbors. But the Russians and the Iranians are the root of the problem. And I think we have a Turkish foreign policy that sometimes tries to somehow ignore the reality of that.
Trinko: I’ve quoted Sen. Graham and mentioned that Sen. Paul was a fan of President Trump’s move. President Trump himself tweeted “#endendlesswars” with one of his tweets about this. And it seems like at least President Trump is trying to relate this to the big debate on the right right now about foreign policy: About how long do you stay in places in this new landscape of terrorism? Do you think that this decision has repercussions for the foreign policy ideology on the right?
Carafano: No. Well, first of all, I hate the whole “endless war” thing because the reality is the United States is not fighting endless wars. We have a couple of hundred folks in Syria. We are not fighting a war in Syria. The Syrians are fighting wars. They’re fighting wars with each other. We’re providing advice and assistance to that mission. It’s not our war. We’re not going to win it. We’re not going to lose it. We don’t own it.
We have troops in Afghanistan. They’re not fighting an endless war in Afghanistan. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 20 years, but we’re not fighting a war. We’re providing advice and assistance to the Afghan military. That’s not an endless war. Matter of fact, we have troops all over the world doing counterterrorism missions, logistical support, very, very similar to what we’re doing in Syria and Afghanistan. They’re not fighting wars either.
They’re also not the world’s policemen. They’re not around trying to keep order in the world. They’re around protecting America’s interests. We’re a global power with global interests and responsibilities. They’re out there doing their job. That’s not going to stop.
When you talk about a specific mission in Afghanistan and Syria and other places, how long should the troops be there? How many? Again, it’s based on what are our interests? What’s important for us to do? And then, what have they done?
Well, when we’ve met the conditions that protect our interests, they can leave. Sometimes that changes. … The war ended in 1945 in Western Europe. FDR told us all the troops would be home in two years. He was off by a little, right? We’re still there, right?
Now the reality is we don’t still have troops in Western Europe because of World War II. We have troops in Western Europe because they’re doing other things, which are very important to us.
In many cases, [those troops] in Western Europe are … there because they go from Europe to other parts of the world to address other things.
We have this myopic public debate because we have these kind of … debates about everything in public life. It’s either good or evil and there’s no in between. So we’re either in endless feudal wars or we’re conquering the world.
The reality is the United States isn’t doing any of those things. President Trump, you can debate particular things, you could certainly debate his rhetoric and his tweets, but his fundamental gut instincts of how to be president of the United States are about right, which is you do what you need to do to protect the country, and you do it as long as you need to do it. I’m kind of OK with that.
Trinko: OK. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Jim.
Carafano: Thank you.