Kurdish General Slams U.S.-Syria Policy; Gen. Petraeus Calls Withdrawal 'A Betrayal'

Originally published on October 19, 2019 3:20 pm

As the five-day cease-fire along Turkey's border with Syria continues to falter, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) tells NPR he thinks the deal is "really terrible."

Under the deal, announced Thursday by Vice President Pence, Turkey agreed to halt its military offensive into the Syrian border region and the U.S. agreed to help usher the Kurdish-led forces out. Gen. Mazloum Kobani Abdi, top commander of the SDF, said his troops are committed to a temporary pause in fighting — but he is unwilling to fully evacuate his forces from the highly contested 20-mile-wide zone along hundreds of miles of the Syrian border.

Abdi says the SDF only agreed to withdraw its forces from "a few specific points," not the entire region under discussion. In an interview with NPR's Daniel Estrin and Lama Al-Arian, the commander said, "We've asked for a corridor in order for us to be able to withdraw our forces ... but [Turkish forces] haven't yet opened one."

Meanwhile, Turkish-backed forces remain in the area. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that if the Kurdish-led forces do not retreat by Tuesday, Turkey will resume its offensive.

On Saturday, The Associated Press reported that the two sides were still trading fire around Ras al-Ayn, a strategic border town.

Intense fighting began after the U.S. rapidly withdrew troops from northeastern Syria earlier this month. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told CBS last week that the U.S. would withdraw 1,000 troops in northern Syria. Two U.S. officials close to the conflict told NPR all U.S. forces involved in fighting ISIS in the area would leave.

Members of Congress largely disagree with the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region; the House denounced it in a 354-60 vote on Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the decision "a grave strategic mistake" in an op-ed on Friday.

In an interview on Saturday, former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus told NPR's Michel Martin that he agrees with McConnell's strongly-worded assessment. Petraeus, the former commander of Central Command in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said the policy was unfair to Kurdish fighters who had been key U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.

"The Kurds always used to say ... that [they] have no friends but the mountains, and I would reassure them," Petraeus said. "I would say, 'Americans are your friends.' ... And sadly, this is arguably a betrayal."

Petraeus told NPR the withdrawal of American forces has turned what was a stable area in Syria, where more than 10,000 Kurdish-led forces had been killed in the fight against ISIS, into "a scramble."

As NPR's Jane Arraf has reported, the short period of conflict this month has led to up to 200 civilian casualties and the displacement of about 200,000 people.

Petraeus said that he understands the desire to reduce the toll on U.S. troops overseas but that in the region being disputed along Syria's border with Turkey, "we'd essentially done that."

"We had less than 1,500 [troops]," Petraeus said. He added that those forces included special operations forces who played an important role in the U.S. campaign there — "but surely that's affordable for the world's only military superpower."

"What we were doing was not fighting on the front lines — we were enabling those who were doing that," Petraeus said. It was U.S. allies — Kurdish-backed forces — "who bore the brunt of the fighting on the front lines."

Sozda Rakko of the Kurdish Red Crescent, northeastern Syria's equivalent of the Red Cross, told NPR's Arraf that she had gotten reports of a hospital bombing along a border city on Friday, one day after the cease-fire agreement was announced.

In a statement on Friday, Kurdish forces said that though attacks had slowed, artillery and drone attacks and gunfire by Turkish-backed militia killed five civilians and at least 13 Kurdish fighters in Syria on Thursday.

"We will not refrain from using our right to legitimate self-defense in case of any attack by Turkish-backed militias," the statement said.

On Friday, President Trump tweeted that he had spoken with Erdogan, who told him that "there was minor sniper and mortar fire that was quickly eliminated."

"[Erdogan] very much wants the ceasefire, or pause, to work," Trump wrote.

Erdogan told reporters that he intends to move some of the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey to the border area where Kurdish-led forces are being asked to evacuate. Syrian Kurds fear hostility from these refugees and worry that their demographic majority would be threatened in certain areas.

"If we stay on this path, it will have catastrophic consequences that will affect the people of the area and create ethnic cleansing," Abdi told NPR. "We are asking Trump and the U.S. administration to keep its promises."

Abdi said he wants Trump to reverse the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria and reverse the U.S. deal with Turkey — "so we can find a complete political solution to the Syrian conflict."

Abdi also said his army had not made a deal with the Syrian regime about which areas it would control in the future. Turkey has expressed a desire for the contested border region in Syria to become "buffer zone," while many see it as a Turkish occupation.

In the meantime, Russian troops are making inroads. As NPR's Greg Myre has reported, video shows Russians taking over an abandoned U.S. outpost, with half-eaten meals left by American troops on the dining tables.

Eugene Rumer, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Myre that Russia's "mission of getting itself reestablished as a major power broker in the Middle East has been facilitated by the fact that the United States has been trying to disengage."

Trump told reporters earlier this week that he does not mind the Russian presence.

"Russia's tough," Trump said. "They can kill ISIS just as well, and they happen to be in their neighborhood."

On Friday, Trump celebrated the deal with Turkey on Twitter: "Think of how many lives we saved in Syria and Turkey by getting a ceasefire yesterday. Thousands and thousands, and maybe many more!"

Moving forward, Petraeus told NPR's Martin, the U.S. needs to determine what can be "salvaged" in the fight against ISIS.

"We have to try to get into a political process, in which now Iran and Russia and [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad clearly have an upper hand," Petraeus said. "We have to take care of those refugees that are being pushed out of their homes ... and somehow, we have to also try to shore up our international credibility at a time when it has been called into question."

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We're going to begin with what has been one of the most explosive and potentially consequential weeks in the Trump administration so far and a week that seen the president's penchant for breaking long-held norms of governance applied to sensitive matters of international affairs and national security. To review, State Department witnesses have told Congress about a shadow foreign policy being conducted by the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. And the White House chief of staff publicly confirmed that the president did demand concessions from Ukraine's president in exchange for aid and other engagement with the United States. And the president's abrupt pullout of U.S. troops from Northern Syria, abandoning longtime Kurdish allies, has sparked a cascade of reactions including an incursion of Russian troops into the area.

That move has prompted strong objections from some of the president's most reliable supporters as well as a number of former top military leaders. We're going to hear from one of them now - retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus. He's led U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, served as commander of U.S. Central Command, where he oversaw military operations in the Middle East, and was later CIA director.

General Petraeus, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID PETRAEUS: Good to be with you, Michel. Thanks.

MARTIN: So just to briefly summarize where we are right now, the president ordered this abrupt pullout of troops from northern Syria after a phone call with Turkey's president, who has long wanted to get Kurdish forces away from Turkey's border. And, as many people know, Kurdish forces have been working with the U.S. forces for years to combat violent extremists. The vice president and secretary of state went to negotiate a cease-fire between Turkey and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. But our reporting indicates that that cease-fire is shaky. So I'd like to ask you to begin with, what's your number one concern at this point in Syria?

PETRAEUS: Well, a week ago, when this policy was first announced, I said publicly that I had four concerns. One was that it might enable an ISIS resurgence. The second - that it could essentially enable ethnic displacement - perhaps even ethnic cleansing. Third, that it would give a victory to Iran and Russia and the murderous Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. And then, fourth, it would call our credibility as allies and partners into question. And unfortunately, frankly, I think that those concerns have been operationalized, have been borne out.

I agree very much with Lindsey Graham, a close ally of the president and, frankly, a longtime friend, and Senator McConnell, who assessed this withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria as a grave strategic mistake - his words. And I also spent four years in Iraq, so I know the Kurds in Iraq very, very well as well. You know, the Kurds always used to say that the Kurds have no friends but the mountains. And I would reassure them, and I would say Americans are your friends. We have conducted Operation Northern Watch essentially to protect you for decades. And we are here now, and we will not desert you. And, sadly, this is arguably a betrayal.

MARTIN: Would there have been a good way to exit Syria? I mean, the president has been saying that this was something he campaigned on. This was a campaign promise, and he is simply fulfilling it. And I think his - the implication is that people should not have been surprised that this is his decision. You've laid out, you know, a number of consequences that you see. But would there have been a way to accomplish this without causing all the effects that you have described?

PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, let me just note that I don't think anyone understands the desire to end endless wars more than those who are privileged to command our men and women in uniform in those very challenging wars. And, of course, I commanded Iraq at the height of the operation, the surge, and then the same in Afghanistan and the overall region. So, again, I fully understand it. And I absolutely understand the need to keep the cost - to reduce the cost, especially in blood and treasure, to an absolute minimum.

But we've essentially done that. I mean, we had less than 1,500 - perhaps even less than that. And yes, some of those are the very high-demand, low-density special operations forces that have played such an important role in this particular campaign. But surely that's affordable for the world's only military superpower. Surely that is a price that we should be willing to assume given that what we were doing was not in the fighting on the front lines. We were enabling those who were doing that.

MARTIN: You noted that Senator McConnell, Senator Graham are political supporters of the president, members of his party. But what's notable about the current moment is that many other former military leaders have been outspoken about this in their criticism of these actions in Syria. And many of them indicate that this is something that is not comfortable for them to do - that their normal inclination is not to be outspoken about a policy decision made by the commander in chief. But why do you think this is the issue that's caused a number of these people to speak out who otherwise are inclined not to do that?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think there has been an accumulation of worries, if you will, about - by the way, not just about the president, who's quite proud to describe himself as a disrupter in chief. This is about more than that. It's actually about the disruption of democracy in Washington - in particular, the inability of Congress to even do its most basic functions. Our Department of Defense is once again under a continuing resolution. They haven't passed a budget for it. We have these periodic threats to shut down government or actual shutdowns of parts of government.

And I think again that the inclination by most of my old comrades and certainly my inclination has been to perhaps comment on policy from time to time but generally to avoid certainly becoming perceived as partisan. But clearly, a couple of very high-profile old battlefield comrades of mine have felt the need to go beyond that. And there is a real concern.

MARTIN: Given everything that you've said, given how chaotic and so forth the situation now is, what is the most productive role for the U.S. right now in your view?

PETRAEUS: Well, we have to salvage what can be salvaged in the fight against the Islamic State. We have to try to get into a political process which now the Iran and Russia and Bashar al-Assad have - clearly have an upper hand. We have to take care of those refugees who are being pushed out of their homes or fleeing from their homes because of the agreement that has been made. And somehow, we have to also try to shore up our international credibility at a time when it has been called into question.

MARTIN: That was General David Petraeus. He's the former commanding general in both Afghanistan and Iraq, a former head of the CIA.

General, thank you so much for talking with us today.

PETRAEUS: A pleasure, Michel. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.