A Foreseen Calamity in Syria

A Foreseen Calamity in Syria thumbnail

transcript

transcript

A Foreseen Calamity in Syria

Hosted by Michael Barbaro; produced by Jonathan Wolfe and Austin Mitchell; with help from Theo Balcomb; and edited by Paige Cowett

President Trump’s troop withdrawal ignited a predicted outburst of chaos and carnage in the Middle East.

michael barbaro
From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.” Today: The presence of U.S. troops in northern Syria was designed to protect America’s allies in the Middle East and keep its enemies there in check. David Sanger on just how quickly and predictably that has all unraveled. It’s Thursday, October 17. David Sanger, good to actually sit across from you in the studio.
david sanger
It’s good to see you down here.
michael barbaro
So it’s been a little more than a week since President Trump is on the phone with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and says, if you want to conduct this big military operation that you have been contemplating for a while inside northern Syria, I’m not going to stand in your way. In fact, I’m going to clear the way by removing some of the U.S. troops there. And you have been tracking the aftermath of that phone call. What has been your biggest takeaway?
david sanger
Well, I guess my biggest takeaway is sometimes the worst-case scenario is even worse than you can imagine.
[music]
david sanger
And in this case, there were a series of predictions by generals, by foreign policy experts, by Middle East experts, by regional studies experts, by diplomats, by people surrounding the president of the United States that if he removed the small force that was sitting on the border between Turkey and Syria, that really bad things would happen.
archived recording 1
It’s going to destabilize the region once again. It’s going to reinvigorate a civil war, and it’s going to give strength to some of the most reactionary and chauvinistic forces in the region.
archived recording 2
We will see everything from the release of ISIS prisoners to a humanitarian catastrophe. It will damage U.S. relations with Turkey.
david sanger
And it turns out those predictions were almost all right.
archived recording 1
All this is playing out exactly as we predicted.
archived recording 2
This was the predicted fallout.
archived recording 3
Things in northern Syria are developing exactly as expected in the sort of worst-case scenario for the U.S.
david sanger
The only surprise so far has been they’ve happened much faster than we anticipated.
michael barbaro
So let’s talk about these predictions one by one. Where do you think we should start?
david sanger
Well, how about with Russia? The first prediction, Michael, was that if the United States disappeared from the border, it would be very, very good for Vladimir Putin.
michael barbaro
And was it?
david sanger
It’s turning out to be better than Putin could possibly have imagined.
archived recording
[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
david sanger
Right now the Russians are occupying, as of today, parts of Syria that the United States was in just a week ago.
archived recording
[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
david sanger
So just this week, you saw some video surface on the web that appeared to be Russian soldiers walking around a base that the United States had abandoned just a few days ago. That happens when you pull troops out. But it certainly gives you a little bit of the chills when you see another country occupying space that the United States had spent a lot of blood and treasure on to take for its own.
archived recording
[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
michael barbaro
So what’s the backstory of Russia’s stake here in Syria and how this has helped them?
david sanger
Well, you’ll remember that back in 2011 during the Arab Spring, Bashar Assad, the dictator who runs Syria, was really on the ropes. And we all thought he’d be gone.
archived recording
[CHANTING]
david sanger
But the Russians saw an opportunity here. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they had retreated to the space that is now the Russian Federation. And Vladimir Putin really wanted to see Russia begin to expand again and be a power, at least in the Middle East. He knew he couldn’t compete with the U.S. globally. But he might be able to regionally, and Syria was a great place for him to start. Because they already had a naval base, the only Russian naval base that has survived outside of Russian territory, on the Syrian coast. So he provided more and more support.
archived recording
Russia is now openly sending military aid to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
david sanger
In 2015, the Russians swooped in.
archived recording (john mccain)
Putin has deployed strike aircraft, T-90 tanks, howitzers.
david sanger
Brought in all kinds of forces, you’ll remember that moment when Barack Obama said, good luck. You know, you’ll get stuck in the Middle East the way we all have.
archived recording
President Obama did say last Friday afternoon, good luck with that. You will not have success in that part of the world.
david sanger
And so suddenly, once the Americans are gone, it becomes an opportunity for the Russians to really establish a beachhead in the Middle East, something they really had not had since back in Nixon’s era. It gives Putin the opportunity he needed, and he didn’t waste a second. He moved his forces in right away. He was clearly ready for the moment. You have to think about global power struggles in this post-Cold War era as a series of vacuums that someone’s going to fill. And for the Russians, they’re seeking opportunities to go into places where the United States cedes the field.
michael barbaro
So just to recap, Russia literally walked into areas of Syria that the U.S. was controlling and patrolling just a few days ago. And they’ve now basically helped take them over, because Russia is so close with Bashar al-Assad of Syria. And without the U.S. being there anymore, Russia now has free rein over that area?
david sanger
Exactly right. And that brings us to the second prediction, which is that this would be really, really good for Bashar Assad. So you’ll remember, Michael, that Assad in 2011 thought he probably wouldn’t get out of Syria alive. Then for a long time, people said, well, his country’s going to fracture. He’s going to hold on to those small parts of the country where his political party and his ethnic group basically control. But the rest of the place is going to break away. Well, once the Russians came in in 2015, Assad actually was able to spread his wings, regain control, except in this one area, in this one part near critical oil supplies, near a lot of the other wealth that he needs for his regime, that was being controlled by the Kurds, and the Kurds were backed by the Americans. And the only thing standing between Assad and controlling this area was the fact that he would have to go take on the Americans who were in the region, even though it was a very small number.
michael barbaro
So what exactly did Assad do once the U.S. pulls back from this part of Syria at the request of Turkey?
david sanger
Well, he moves to get his country back. He literally streams troops into the region —
archived recording 1
Rolling in to a hero’s welcome.
archived recording 2
[SOUND OF HORNS AND A PERSON SPEAKING]
archived recording 3
Troops of the Assad regime —
david sanger
— with Russian help.
archived recording
— handed a victory without firing a shot.
david sanger
And then, because the Kurds realize they’ve got no one else to turn to, they flip and join up with Assad’s forces in facing off with Turkey.
archived recording
Those Kurdish forces are going to partner with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. This was brokered by the Russians.
david sanger
They literally change alliances within a few days. So suddenly, the force that he was fighting is on his side. And Bashar Assad gets to make the rules about who’s going to live there, and where, and when, and who will control the oil. So all of a sudden, Assad has gone from having what has essentially been a rebel-controlled region to having the rebels rely on him for support.
michael barbaro
That’s kind of astonishing.
david sanger
It couldn’t have worked out better for Bashar Assad if he had called a national security meeting and said to his generals, give me blue sky of what’s the best thing that could happen to me this year.
michael barbaro
Right, your enemy, the people fighting you in your own country successfully with the help of the U.S., they are now your allies, and they are inviting you into the rebel-held territory.
david sanger
And he got it for free. He didn’t have to negotiate with the Kurds. He didn’t have to negotiate with Washington. He didn’t have to make any concessions. The U.S. just up and left, and that, of course, turned what had been just a festering political issue into his great opportunity.
michael barbaro
O.K., so David, what’s our next prediction that came true?
david sanger
Well, a lot of people in Washington said, this will help the Iranians, the one country that Donald Trump most despises, the one he most wants to crush with sanctions, the one who he’s worried about the most gaining influence in the region.
michael barbaro
Yeah, so how is it helping Iran?
david sanger
It’s helping Iran because their ally, Assad, gains power and territory. And the United States ends up pulling back. So what was an opportunity to go keep an eye on the Iranians and perhaps push back on their influence inside Syria, that leverage is all gone.
michael barbaro
Right.
david sanger
And the other thing it does for Iran, of course, is they use Syria as a pathway to get weapons to Hezbollah, a terrorist group that’s threatening Israel, among others. Now those weapons didn’t run through the Kurdish territory. But certainly if the United States is pulling back and is no longer going to be a presence in the country, the Iranians have to take that as one less toll on the highway.
michael barbaro
Hmm. And so in that way, President Trump’s decision here may make life more difficult and more dangerous for one of our allies, Israel.
david sanger
That’s right — the ally he talks the most about defending. Now, let’s not overestimate this, because there were vast parts of Syria that Iran had free rein in before this happened. But certainly, the image of the United States not having the stomach to keep a really small investment inside Syria sends a message to Tehran that rings loud and clear. There’s a psychological element to this. The Middle East is all about power. And if you are detected to be weak, others are going to go make a move. So for all the United States has done to make life miserable for Iran — sanctions, sabotage, cyberattacks — the one thing they do with a physical military presence is they pick up and they pull back from contested territory.
michael barbaro
So they signal weakness?
david sanger
They signal that they can be taken.
[music]
michael barbaro
We’ll be right back. O.K., so at this point, David, you have ticked through three predictions involving three of our greatest adversaries in the world, and how they are benefiting from this decision by the president. But you haven’t yet brought up what may be our greatest adversary and its impact on them, which is ISIS. And the whole reason we were in Syria in the first place was to try to contain ISIS.
david sanger
That’s right. And the prediction was if the United States pulled back, we would re-empower ISIS and give them another shot at survival.
michael barbaro
And —
archived recording
We have reports that hundreds of ISIS prisoners are escaping as militias backed by Turkey push deeper into Syria.
david sanger
Well, that looks like what’s happened.
archived recording
Three prisons holding thousands of ISIS members have come under attack in the last 24 hours.
david sanger
There were thousands of ISIS fighters who were being kept in camps in this Kurdish-controlled area of Syria. And as the Kurds have spent their time fighting Turkey, suddenly, they don’t have the time to go focus on keeping ISIS contained in these camps.
archived recording
We visited a prison packed with 5,000 ISIS detainees. The warden told me if the guards need to leave and fight, they’ll just lock the cells and go.
david sanger
You know, there was one case where there was a camp that had thousands of family members of ISIS fighters, women, children. And about 500 of them just walked away, walked out of the camp, earlier this week.
michael barbaro
And that’s basically because the Kurds, under attack by Turkey, just didn’t have the bandwidth to guard this place anymore.
david sanger
They had more important priorities. So the reality is that the prediction has largely come true that ISIS members are either out, or on their way out, or have a good prospect of getting out. And that they have their best chance in a long time to go retake some territory or at least re-establish their power and a base from which they could begin to plan attacks again on the West.
michael barbaro
David, of all the predictions and outcomes that you have talked about so far, this one seems the hardest to comprehend, because it’s somewhat understandable that the U.S. might not have a plan to deal with great powers like Russia, and Iran, and Syria, and how they might be empowered by what President Trump just did in northern Syria. But when it comes to just making sure that a few prisons that hold a group of people who are devoted to the destruction of the United States and Americans, you would just have to think that there’s a plan to make sure that prisons keep people imprisoned.
david sanger
That’s right. I mean what you’re talking about are two different kinds of planning. Planning to contain Russia and divert or contain Iran, that’s grand strategy. Holding on to prisoners, that’s basic tactics. And what’s astounding about this particular presidential decision, this action by President Erdogan, is that it’s actually revealed that we’re bad at the strategy, and we’re worse at the tactics, that we didn’t have a plan B to go handle these prisoners if we turned our backs on the Kurds, who were acting, essentially, as the jail wardens here.
michael barbaro
And, of course, not to take away your predictions here, David, but perhaps the most foreseeable prediction, slash, outcome was that this was going to be bad for the Kurds, bad for the people occupying this part of northeastern Syria that President Trump more or less invited Turkey to invade. But I wonder, just how bad has it actually been, just how accurate was that prediction?
david sanger
Well, here, the prediction was off, because it turned out to be much worse than we imagined. There were some who said, Erdogan is just going to bring his forces in, in sort of a faux invasion. And that there’d be a big show of jets, and there would be some troops on the ground, but they wouldn’t really go in that far, and they wouldn’t really engage. It would be about flexing muscles more than really taking territory. But it turned out that once the forces moved in, it uncorked all of the worst demons that have been sitting around in this region. And you’ve seen the results on TV.
archived recording 1
[EXPLOSION] A convoy packed with civilians and journalists trying to enter a border town was struck by a Turkish airstrike. Eleven killed, more than 70 wounded.
archived recording 2
This video today appears to show Arab militias executing a Kurd by the roadside as they shout, “Allahu akbar,” and proudly saying, film me. Film me.
david sanger
You’ve seen horrible scenes of rape, including of a prominent politician.
archived recording
Among those slain, one leading Kurdish political leader, apparently dragged from her car and shot in the head.
david sanger
You’ve seen stonings happening. You’ve seen houses being burned.
archived recording
This is a war crime, if verified.
david sanger
You’ve seen people with children trying to flee.
archived recording
Nearly 70,000 children have been displaced since hostilities in northeast Syria escalated nearly a week ago.
david sanger
And they’ve got no place to go. It’s not clear that they can go any place else in Syria.
archived recording
[SPEAKING ARABIC]
archived recording (interpreter)
I have four children, two girls and two boys. Where should I go? I’m so tired. I left the house a week ago. Where should I go now?
david sanger
And so the prediction was this would be really bad for the Kurds, but what it turned into was carnage for the Kurds.
michael barbaro
David, we started this conversation with you saying that a series of predictions had come true. And talking to you, it’s clear that they didn’t just come true. They came true faster and in a bigger way than anybody even imagined. I wonder if you think that President Trump was aware of these predictions at the time that he had this phone call with Erdogan, and just disregarded them, basically decided that the outcomes wouldn’t matter that much, or if he genuinely thought that the predictions were just wrong and that there would be a different set of outcomes in each of these cases.
david sanger
Well, it’s hard to know. But certainly he heard the predictions, and he didn’t just hear them in the past few weeks. This was exactly the debate that took place in the White House last December, when the president somewhat impetuously said, we’re pulling all our troops out of Syria. And you’ll remember that this is when General Mattis resigned as the defense secretary.
michael barbaro
Right.
david sanger
You’ll remember that this is when the Joint Chiefs came and said, sir, you can’t do this.
michael barbaro
Right.
david sanger
So why did he do this, Michael? I think it goes to a conflation in his mind between the concept of endless war —
michael barbaro
A phrase he uses a lot.
david sanger
— a phrase he uses all the time in the Middle East, and the concept of keeping a small number of, essentially, peacekeepers to keep bad forces in the bottle. And the conflation here is particularly damaging. We have a lot of places in the world, Michael, where we keep troops largely to keep the peace. It’s the reason we’ve got thousands along the border in South Korea, to keep the North from coming. It’s the reason that we keep troops in Japan to put at least some parameters around the Chinese. It’s the reason we still have troops in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, to be able to contain Putin’s aggressions elsewhere. The concept is, you keep Americans at strategic places around the world as a preventative for conflict. That in the end, it costs you a whole lot less to keep a small force that prevents conflict from erupting than to have to send in a big force and act after a huge terror attack, some kind of calamity hitting an American ally.
michael barbaro
But David, would that mean keeping some kind of American force there in perpetuity, basically forever?
david sanger
Well, it might. I don’t think that that’s what anybody had in mind for the Turkish-Syrian border. But if you were going to pull them out, you pull them out slowly, in a coordinated way that does not allow the Russians and Bashar Assad to fill the vacuum, that doesn’t benefit the Iranians, and that you get something in return for the slow pullout. It’s not an endless war. It’s a persistent presence that enables you to act a bit as the world’s policeman. And that simply is not Donald Trump’s vision of American power.
michael barbaro
So you’re saying that he was not unaware of all of these potential outcomes. He, in fact, it sounds like, because there was this debate in the White House, was very aware of them. He simply, instead, he just prioritized the return of U.S. troops, his vision of American foreign policy, above any of those predictable strategic shifts, human costs and the empowering of our enemies.
david sanger
In the Trump administration, humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping is not what “America First” is all about.
michael barbaro
But the cumulative impact of every outcome that we have talked about in this conversation, David, feels like it has been bad for the United States in this moment. So unless you believe that bringing home U.S. troops is the highest possible value, that it’s the most important thing to do in a situation like this, then it’s hard to understand the decision that was made.
david sanger
It’s almost impossible to. And you know, Michael, it’s hard to find almost anyone in Washington other than the president, Vice President Pence, Mike Pompeo, the national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who will defend this decision.
[music]
david sanger
This was a case where we had a system that was working. We had, essentially, an American protectorate going on in these Kurdish areas. We were doing it at low cost and nearly zero casualties. And in one week, we undid what was, essentially, seven years of effort to try to make this work.
michael barbaro
Thank you, David.
david sanger
Thank you.
archived recording (donald trump)
So I view the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be, for the United States, strategically brilliant. Our soldiers are out of there. Our soldiers are totally safe. They’ve got to work it out.
michael barbaro
During a news conference on Wednesday, President Trump celebrated his decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, and argued that the conflict it has unleashed is not America’s problem.
archived recording (donald trump)
Our soldiers are not in harm’s way, as they shouldn’t be, as two countries fight over land that has nothing to do with us.
michael barbaro
The president went on to unexpectedly criticize Kurdish forces, who have fought alongside U.S. troops for years.
archived recording (donald trump)
The Kurds know how to fight. And as I said, they’re not angels. They’re not angels. If you take a look, you have to go back and take a look.
michael barbaro
A few hours later, the House of Representatives approved a bipartisan resolution condemning the president’s decision, with every Democrat and 129 Republicans supporting the measure.
archived recording (will hurd)
Because of this decision and all the actions and inactions that led up to this decision, we have let our friends down. We have hurt our national security. And we have ceded leadership in the region to Russia and Iran. I hope we can change our course, but I fear it may be too late.
michael barbaro
We’ll be right back.
mikayla bouchard
Hi, guys.
clare toeniskoetter
Hi.
mikayla bouchard
How are you?
rachel quester
Hi, Julie.
julie hirschfeld davis
Hi. How are you?
rachel quester
Good. How are you?
julie hirschfeld davis
Good.
michael barbaro
Hi.
julie hirschfeld davis
Hi.
michael barbaro
Busy?
julie hirschfeld davis
A little.
michael barbaro
So, what do we need to know?
julie hirschfeld davis
So on Wednesday, we learned that Fiona Hill, former top official at the National Security Council, who has since left, told investigators when she testified to the impeachment inquiry that Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, was potentially a national security risk because of the role he was playing on Ukraine that she didn’t feel he was qualified to play. Ambassador Sondland is a really important witness that they are going to hear from on Thursday because of the role that he played sort of at the center of this whole pressure campaign on Ukraine. Also on Wednesday, there was a big meeting at the White House between the president and the congressional leaders on Syria.
archived recording (steny hoyer)
You’re going to hear the president say we walked out. We were offended deeply by his treatment of the speaker of the House of Representatives.
julie hirschfeld davis
Which led to a huge blow-up between the president and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the other Democratic leaders where he lashed out at everyone, very upset about the fact that the House had just voted resoundingly to condemn his decision to pull U.S. troops back from northern Syria and allow what is now a massacre going on with the Kurds. So it was a really nasty confrontation.
archived recording (chuck schumer)
He was insulting, particularly to the speaker. She kept her cool completely. But he called her a third-rate politician. He said that there are communists involved, and you guys might like that. I mean, this was not a dialogue. It was sort of a diatribe, a nasty diatribe, not focused on the facts.
julie hirschfeld davis
It was clearly a blow-up. The Democrats ended up walking out, and the president was basically saying, see you at the polls, and very indignant as they left.
clare toeniskoetter
Thanks, Julie.
julie hirschfeld davis
Sure. Thank you. That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Julie Davis. See you tomorrow.
clare toeniskoetter
I guess you won’t see us. Bye. See you tomorrow.
julie hirschfeld davis
See you tomorrow.
clare toeniskoetter
We’ll see you.
julie hirschfeld davis
We’ll see.
clare toeniskoetter
Someone will see you.
julie hirschfeld davis
You’ll see somebody from “The Daily” tomorrow.

President Trump’s troop withdrawal ignited a predicted outburst of chaos and carnage in the Middle East.

Hosted by Michael Barbaro; produced by Jonathan Wolfe and Austin Mitchell; with help from Theo Balcomb; and edited by Paige Cowett

transcript

transcript

A Foreseen Calamity in Syria

Hosted by Michael Barbaro; produced by Jonathan Wolfe and Austin Mitchell; with help from Theo Balcomb; and edited by Paige Cowett

President Trump’s troop withdrawal ignited a predicted outburst of chaos and carnage in the Middle East.

michael barbaro
From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.” Today: The presence of U.S. troops in northern Syria was designed to protect America’s allies in the Middle East and keep its enemies there in check. David Sanger on just how quickly and predictably that has all unraveled. It’s Thursday, October 17. David Sanger, good to actually sit across from you in the studio.
david sanger
It’s good to see you down here.
michael barbaro
So it’s been a little more than a week since President Trump is on the phone with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and says, if you want to conduct this big military operation that you have been contemplating for a while inside northern Syria, I’m not going to stand in your way. In fact, I’m going to clear the way by removing some of the U.S. troops there. And you have been tracking the aftermath of that phone call. What has been your biggest takeaway?
david sanger
Well, I guess my biggest takeaway is sometimes the worst-case scenario is even worse than you can imagine.
[music]
david sanger
And in this case, there were a series of predictions by generals, by foreign policy experts, by Middle East experts, by regional studies experts, by diplomats, by people surrounding the president of the United States that if he removed the small force that was sitting on the border between Turkey and Syria, that really bad things would happen.
archived recording 1
It’s going to destabilize the region once again. It’s going to reinvigorate a civil war, and it’s going to give strength to some of the most reactionary and chauvinistic forces in the region.
archived recording 2
We will see everything from the release of ISIS prisoners to a humanitarian catastrophe. It will damage U.S. relations with Turkey.
david sanger
And it turns out those predictions were almost all right.
archived recording 1
All this is playing out exactly as we predicted.
archived recording 2
This was the predicted fallout.
archived recording 3
Things in northern Syria are developing exactly as expected in the sort of worst-case scenario for the U.S.
david sanger
The only surprise so far has been they’ve happened much faster than we anticipated.
michael barbaro
So let’s talk about these predictions one by one. Where do you think we should start?
david sanger
Well, how about with Russia? The first prediction, Michael, was that if the United States disappeared from the border, it would be very, very good for Vladimir Putin.
michael barbaro
And was it?
david sanger
It’s turning out to be better than Putin could possibly have imagined.
archived recording
[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
david sanger
Right now the Russians are occupying, as of today, parts of Syria that the United States was in just a week ago.
archived recording
[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
david sanger
So just this week, you saw some video surface on the web that appeared to be Russian soldiers walking around a base that the United States had abandoned just a few days ago. That happens when you pull troops out. But it certainly gives you a little bit of the chills when you see another country occupying space that the United States had spent a lot of blood and treasure on to take for its own.
archived recording
[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
michael barbaro
So what’s the backstory of Russia’s stake here in Syria and how this has helped them?
david sanger
Well, you’ll remember that back in 2011 during the Arab Spring, Bashar Assad, the dictator who runs Syria, was really on the ropes. And we all thought he’d be gone.
archived recording
[CHANTING]
david sanger
But the Russians saw an opportunity here. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they had retreated to the space that is now the Russian Federation. And Vladimir Putin really wanted to see Russia begin to expand again and be a power, at least in the Middle East. He knew he couldn’t compete with the U.S. globally. But he might be able to regionally, and Syria was a great place for him to start. Because they already had a naval base, the only Russian naval base that has survived outside of Russian territory, on the Syrian coast. So he provided more and more support.
archived recording
Russia is now openly sending military aid to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
david sanger
In 2015, the Russians swooped in.
archived recording (john mccain)
Putin has deployed strike aircraft, T-90 tanks, howitzers.
david sanger
Brought in all kinds of forces, you’ll remember that moment when Barack Obama said, good luck. You know, you’ll get stuck in the Middle East the way we all have.
archived recording
President Obama did say last Friday afternoon, good luck with that. You will not have success in that part of the world.
david sanger
And so suddenly, once the Americans are gone, it becomes an opportunity for the Russians to really establish a beachhead in the Middle East, something they really had not had since back in Nixon’s era. It gives Putin the opportunity he needed, and he didn’t waste a second. He moved his forces in right away. He was clearly ready for the moment. You have to think about global power struggles in this post-Cold War era as a series of vacuums that someone’s going to fill. And for the Russians, they’re seeking opportunities to go into places where the United States cedes the field.
michael barbaro
So just to recap, Russia literally walked into areas of Syria that the U.S. was controlling and patrolling just a few days ago. And they’ve now basically helped take them over, because Russia is so close with Bashar al-Assad of Syria. And without the U.S. being there anymore, Russia now has free rein over that area?
david sanger
Exactly right. And that brings us to the second prediction, which is that this would be really, really good for Bashar Assad. So you’ll remember, Michael, that Assad in 2011 thought he probably wouldn’t get out of Syria alive. Then for a long time, people said, well, his country’s going to fracture. He’s going to hold on to those small parts of the country where his political party and his ethnic group basically control. But the rest of the place is going to break away. Well, once the Russians came in in 2015, Assad actually was able to spread his wings, regain control, except in this one area, in this one part near critical oil supplies, near a lot of the other wealth that he needs for his regime, that was being controlled by the Kurds, and the Kurds were backed by the Americans. And the only thing standing between Assad and controlling this area was the fact that he would have to go take on the Americans who were in the region, even though it was a very small number.
michael barbaro
So what exactly did Assad do once the U.S. pulls back from this part of Syria at the request of Turkey?
david sanger
Well, he moves to get his country back. He literally streams troops into the region —
archived recording 1
Rolling in to a hero’s welcome.
archived recording 2
[SOUND OF HORNS AND A PERSON SPEAKING]
archived recording 3
Troops of the Assad regime —
david sanger
— with Russian help.
archived recording
— handed a victory without firing a shot.
david sanger
And then, because the Kurds realize they’ve got no one else to turn to, they flip and join up with Assad’s forces in facing off with Turkey.
archived recording
Those Kurdish forces are going to partner with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. This was brokered by the Russians.
david sanger
They literally change alliances within a few days. So suddenly, the force that he was fighting is on his side. And Bashar Assad gets to make the rules about who’s going to live there, and where, and when, and who will control the oil. So all of a sudden, Assad has gone from having what has essentially been a rebel-controlled region to having the rebels rely on him for support.
michael barbaro
That’s kind of astonishing.
david sanger
It couldn’t have worked out better for Bashar Assad if he had called a national security meeting and said to his generals, give me blue sky of what’s the best thing that could happen to me this year.
michael barbaro
Right, your enemy, the people fighting you in your own country successfully with the help of the U.S., they are now your allies, and they are inviting you into the rebel-held territory.
david sanger
And he got it for free. He didn’t have to negotiate with the Kurds. He didn’t have to negotiate with Washington. He didn’t have to make any concessions. The U.S. just up and left, and that, of course, turned what had been just a festering political issue into his great opportunity.
michael barbaro
O.K., so David, what’s our next prediction that came true?
david sanger
Well, a lot of people in Washington said, this will help the Iranians, the one country that Donald Trump most despises, the one he most wants to crush with sanctions, the one who he’s worried about the most gaining influence in the region.
michael barbaro
Yeah, so how is it helping Iran?
david sanger
It’s helping Iran because their ally, Assad, gains power and territory. And the United States ends up pulling back. So what was an opportunity to go keep an eye on the Iranians and perhaps push back on their influence inside Syria, that leverage is all gone.
michael barbaro
Right.
david sanger
And the other thing it does for Iran, of course, is they use Syria as a pathway to get weapons to Hezbollah, a terrorist group that’s threatening Israel, among others. Now those weapons didn’t run through the Kurdish territory. But certainly if the United States is pulling back and is no longer going to be a presence in the country, the Iranians have to take that as one less toll on the highway.
michael barbaro
Hmm. And so in that way, President Trump’s decision here may make life more difficult and more dangerous for one of our allies, Israel.
david sanger
That’s right — the ally he talks the most about defending. Now, let’s not overestimate this, because there were vast parts of Syria that Iran had free rein in before this happened. But certainly, the image of the United States not having the stomach to keep a really small investment inside Syria sends a message to Tehran that rings loud and clear. There’s a psychological element to this. The Middle East is all about power. And if you are detected to be weak, others are going to go make a move. So for all the United States has done to make life miserable for Iran — sanctions, sabotage, cyberattacks — the one thing they do with a physical military presence is they pick up and they pull back from contested territory.
michael barbaro
So they signal weakness?
david sanger
They signal that they can be taken.
[music]
michael barbaro
We’ll be right back. O.K., so at this point, David, you have ticked through three predictions involving three of our greatest adversaries in the world, and how they are benefiting from this decision by the president. But you haven’t yet brought up what may be our greatest adversary and its impact on them, which is ISIS. And the whole reason we were in Syria in the first place was to try to contain ISIS.
david sanger
That’s right. And the prediction was if the United States pulled back, we would re-empower ISIS and give them another shot at survival.
michael barbaro
And —
archived recording
We have reports that hundreds of ISIS prisoners are escaping as militias backed by Turkey push deeper into Syria.
david sanger
Well, that looks like what’s happened.
archived recording
Three prisons holding thousands of ISIS members have come under attack in the last 24 hours.
david sanger
There were thousands of ISIS fighters who were being kept in camps in this Kurdish-controlled area of Syria. And as the Kurds have spent their time fighting Turkey, suddenly, they don’t have the time to go focus on keeping ISIS contained in these camps.
archived recording
We visited a prison packed with 5,000 ISIS detainees. The warden told me if the guards need to leave and fight, they’ll just lock the cells and go.
david sanger
You know, there was one case where there was a camp that had thousands of family members of ISIS fighters, women, children. And about 500 of them just walked away, walked out of the camp, earlier this week.
michael barbaro
And that’s basically because the Kurds, under attack by Turkey, just didn’t have the bandwidth to guard this place anymore.
david sanger
They had more important priorities. So the reality is that the prediction has largely come true that ISIS members are either out, or on their way out, or have a good prospect of getting out. And that they have their best chance in a long time to go retake some territory or at least re-establish their power and a base from which they could begin to plan attacks again on the West.
michael barbaro
David, of all the predictions and outcomes that you have talked about so far, this one seems the hardest to comprehend, because it’s somewhat understandable that the U.S. might not have a plan to deal with great powers like Russia, and Iran, and Syria, and how they might be empowered by what President Trump just did in northern Syria. But when it comes to just making sure that a few prisons that hold a group of people who are devoted to the destruction of the United States and Americans, you would just have to think that there’s a plan to make sure that prisons keep people imprisoned.
david sanger
That’s right. I mean what you’re talking about are two different kinds of planning. Planning to contain Russia and divert or contain Iran, that’s grand strategy. Holding on to prisoners, that’s basic tactics. And what’s astounding about this particular presidential decision, this action by President Erdogan, is that it’s actually revealed that we’re bad at the strategy, and we’re worse at the tactics, that we didn’t have a plan B to go handle these prisoners if we turned our backs on the Kurds, who were acting, essentially, as the jail wardens here.
michael barbaro
And, of course, not to take away your predictions here, David, but perhaps the most foreseeable prediction, slash, outcome was that this was going to be bad for the Kurds, bad for the people occupying this part of northeastern Syria that President Trump more or less invited Turkey to invade. But I wonder, just how bad has it actually been, just how accurate was that prediction?
david sanger
Well, here, the prediction was off, because it turned out to be much worse than we imagined. There were some who said, Erdogan is just going to bring his forces in, in sort of a faux invasion. And that there’d be a big show of jets, and there would be some troops on the ground, but they wouldn’t really go in that far, and they wouldn’t really engage. It would be about flexing muscles more than really taking territory. But it turned out that once the forces moved in, it uncorked all of the worst demons that have been sitting around in this region. And you’ve seen the results on TV.
archived recording 1
[EXPLOSION] A convoy packed with civilians and journalists trying to enter a border town was struck by a Turkish airstrike. Eleven killed, more than 70 wounded.
archived recording 2
This video today appears to show Arab militias executing a Kurd by the roadside as they shout, “Allahu akbar,” and proudly saying, film me. Film me.
david sanger
You’ve seen horrible scenes of rape, including of a prominent politician.
archived recording
Among those slain, one leading Kurdish political leader, apparently dragged from her car and shot in the head.
david sanger
You’ve seen stonings happening. You’ve seen houses being burned.
archived recording
This is a war crime, if verified.
david sanger
You’ve seen people with children trying to flee.
archived recording
Nearly 70,000 children have been displaced since hostilities in northeast Syria escalated nearly a week ago.
david sanger
And they’ve got no place to go. It’s not clear that they can go any place else in Syria.
archived recording
[SPEAKING ARABIC]
archived recording (interpreter)
I have four children, two girls and two boys. Where should I go? I’m so tired. I left the house a week ago. Where should I go now?
david sanger
And so the prediction was this would be really bad for the Kurds, but what it turned into was carnage for the Kurds.
michael barbaro
David, we started this conversation with you saying that a series of predictions had come true. And talking to you, it’s clear that they didn’t just come true. They came true faster and in a bigger way than anybody even imagined. I wonder if you think that President Trump was aware of these predictions at the time that he had this phone call with Erdogan, and just disregarded them, basically decided that the outcomes wouldn’t matter that much, or if he genuinely thought that the predictions were just wrong and that there would be a different set of outcomes in each of these cases.
david sanger
Well, it’s hard to know. But certainly he heard the predictions, and he didn’t just hear them in the past few weeks. This was exactly the debate that took place in the White House last December, when the president somewhat impetuously said, we’re pulling all our troops out of Syria. And you’ll remember that this is when General Mattis resigned as the defense secretary.
michael barbaro
Right.
david sanger
You’ll remember that this is when the Joint Chiefs came and said, sir, you can’t do this.
michael barbaro
Right.
david sanger
So why did he do this, Michael? I think it goes to a conflation in his mind between the concept of endless war —
michael barbaro
A phrase he uses a lot.
david sanger
— a phrase he uses all the time in the Middle East, and the concept of keeping a small number of, essentially, peacekeepers to keep bad forces in the bottle. And the conflation here is particularly damaging. We have a lot of places in the world, Michael, where we keep troops largely to keep the peace. It’s the reason we’ve got thousands along the border in South Korea, to keep the North from coming. It’s the reason that we keep troops in Japan to put at least some parameters around the Chinese. It’s the reason we still have troops in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, to be able to contain Putin’s aggressions elsewhere. The concept is, you keep Americans at strategic places around the world as a preventative for conflict. That in the end, it costs you a whole lot less to keep a small force that prevents conflict from erupting than to have to send in a big force and act after a huge terror attack, some kind of calamity hitting an American ally.
michael barbaro
But David, would that mean keeping some kind of American force there in perpetuity, basically forever?
david sanger
Well, it might. I don’t think that that’s what anybody had in mind for the Turkish-Syrian border. But if you were going to pull them out, you pull them out slowly, in a coordinated way that does not allow the Russians and Bashar Assad to fill the vacuum, that doesn’t benefit the Iranians, and that you get something in return for the slow pullout. It’s not an endless war. It’s a persistent presence that enables you to act a bit as the world’s policeman. And that simply is not Donald Trump’s vision of American power.
michael barbaro
So you’re saying that he was not unaware of all of these potential outcomes. He, in fact, it sounds like, because there was this debate in the White House, was very aware of them. He simply, instead, he just prioritized the return of U.S. troops, his vision of American foreign policy, above any of those predictable strategic shifts, human costs and the empowering of our enemies.
david sanger
In the Trump administration, humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping is not what “America First” is all about.
michael barbaro
But the cumulative impact of every outcome that we have talked about in this conversation, David, feels like it has been bad for the United States in this moment. So unless you believe that bringing home U.S. troops is the highest possible value, that it’s the most important thing to do in a situation like this, then it’s hard to understand the decision that was made.
david sanger
It’s almost impossible to. And you know, Michael, it’s hard to find almost anyone in Washington other than the president, Vice President Pence, Mike Pompeo, the national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who will defend this decision.
[music]
david sanger
This was a case where we had a system that was working. We had, essentially, an American protectorate going on in these Kurdish areas. We were doing it at low cost and nearly zero casualties. And in one week, we undid what was, essentially, seven years of effort to try to make this work.
michael barbaro
Thank you, David.
david sanger
Thank you.
archived recording (donald trump)
So I view the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be, for the United States, strategically brilliant. Our soldiers are out of there. Our soldiers are totally safe. They’ve got to work it out.
michael barbaro
During a news conference on Wednesday, President Trump celebrated his decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, and argued that the conflict it has unleashed is not America’s problem.
archived recording (donald trump)
Our soldiers are not in harm’s way, as they shouldn’t be, as two countries fight over land that has nothing to do with us.
michael barbaro
The president went on to unexpectedly criticize Kurdish forces, who have fought alongside U.S. troops for years.
archived recording (donald trump)
The Kurds know how to fight. And as I said, they’re not angels. They’re not angels. If you take a look, you have to go back and take a look.
michael barbaro
A few hours later, the House of Representatives approved a bipartisan resolution condemning the president’s decision, with every Democrat and 129 Republicans supporting the measure.
archived recording (will hurd)
Because of this decision and all the actions and inactions that led up to this decision, we have let our friends down. We have hurt our national security. And we have ceded leadership in the region to Russia and Iran. I hope we can change our course, but I fear it may be too late.
michael barbaro
We’ll be right back.
mikayla bouchard
Hi, guys.
clare toeniskoetter
Hi.
mikayla bouchard
How are you?
rachel quester
Hi, Julie.
julie hirschfeld davis
Hi. How are you?
rachel quester
Good. How are you?
julie hirschfeld davis
Good.
michael barbaro
Hi.
julie hirschfeld davis
Hi.
michael barbaro
Busy?
julie hirschfeld davis
A little.
michael barbaro
So, what do we need to know?
julie hirschfeld davis
So on Wednesday, we learned that Fiona Hill, former top official at the National Security Council, who has since left, told investigators when she testified to the impeachment inquiry that Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, was potentially a national security risk because of the role he was playing on Ukraine that she didn’t feel he was qualified to play. Ambassador Sondland is a really important witness that they are going to hear from on Thursday because of the role that he played sort of at the center of this whole pressure campaign on Ukraine. Also on Wednesday, there was a big meeting at the White House between the president and the congressional leaders on Syria.
archived recording (steny hoyer)
You’re going to hear the president say we walked out. We were offended deeply by his treatment of the speaker of the House of Representatives.
julie hirschfeld davis
Which led to a huge blow-up between the president and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the other Democratic leaders where he lashed out at everyone, very upset about the fact that the House had just voted resoundingly to condemn his decision to pull U.S. troops back from northern Syria and allow what is now a massacre going on with the Kurds. So it was a really nasty confrontation.
archived recording (chuck schumer)
He was insulting, particularly to the speaker. She kept her cool completely. But he called her a third-rate politician. He said that there are communists involved, and you guys might like that. I mean, this was not a dialogue. It was sort of a diatribe, a nasty diatribe, not focused on the facts.
julie hirschfeld davis
It was clearly a blow-up. The Democrats ended up walking out, and the president was basically saying, see you at the polls, and very indignant as they left.
clare toeniskoetter
Thanks, Julie.
julie hirschfeld davis
Sure. Thank you. That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Julie Davis. See you tomorrow.
clare toeniskoetter
I guess you won’t see us. Bye. See you tomorrow.
julie hirschfeld davis
See you tomorrow.
clare toeniskoetter
We’ll see you.
julie hirschfeld davis
We’ll see.
clare toeniskoetter
Someone will see you.
julie hirschfeld davis
You’ll see somebody from “The Daily” tomorrow.

More episodes ofThe Daily

Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device:

Via Apple Podcasts | Via RadioPublic | Via Stitcher

The presence of U.S. troops in northern Syria was designed to protect America’s allies and keep its enemies there in check. President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the region quickly, and predictably, unraveled a tenuous peace on the volatile border between Syria and Turkey. His decision handed a gift to four American adversaries: Iran, Russia, the Syrian government and the Islamic State. David E. Sanger of The Times explains why “the worst-case scenario is even worse than you can imagine.”

On today’s episode:

  • David E. Sanger, a national security correspondent and a senior writer at The New York Times.

Image

CreditLefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

Background coverage:

  • President Trump lashed out in defense of his decision to remove U.S. troops from northeastern Syria in response to rare bipartisan condemnation from Congress.

  • Russian troops have already occupied abandoned American outposts in Syria as Moscow moves to fill the power vacuum.

  • “Don’t be a fool! I will call you later.” Read the letter President Trump sent to Turkey’s leader.

Video

Video player loading

On Sunday Oct. 6, President Trump announced that Turkey would move forward with an offensive in northeast Syria after U.S. troops pulled out of the area. Since then, American-allied Kurdish forces have been under attack, over 200,000 people have been displaced and the threat of ISIS’s resurgence looms. Our video traces how we got here in just one week.CreditCreditAssociated Press

David Sanger contributed reporting.

“The Daily” is made by Theo Balcomb, Andy Mills, Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Annie Brown, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dorr, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Alexandra Leigh Young, Jonathan Wolfe, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, Adizah Eghan, Kelly Prime, Julia Longoria, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Jazmín Aguilera, M.J. Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Austin Mitchell, Sayre Quevedo and Monika Evstatieva. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Mikayla Bouchard, Stella Tan, Julia Simon and Lauren Jackson.

Read More

Please follow and like us:
error