NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: pulling out of Syria.
President Trump on Sunday issued a surprise announcement. Namely, that U.S. troops would be leaving northern Syria.
That move jeopardizes the safety of American allies, the Kurds, because it gives their enemies, the Turks, the freedom to move in. As U.S. military vehicles rolled across the border, airstrikes and artillery fire rained down on the Kurds. War monitoring groups say at least seven civilians have died so far. The attack was accompanied by warnings of a humanitarian crisis.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: What does all this mean for stability in the region and the fight against Islamic terror groups? Joining us now to talk about it is Alberto Fernandez. He’s a former U.S. ambassador who served in Syria and worked for both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He’s now president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
Ambassador Fernandez, good morning to you!
ALBERTO FERNANDEZ, GUEST: Thank you. Glad to be here with you.
REICHARD: Let’s start with why U.S. forces were in Syria to begin with—fighting ISIS. What exactly were they doing, and how vital were they to anti-terror efforts in the region?
FERNANDEZ: Well, they were vital. It was not a large presence. It was, you know, we’re talking in the hundreds of personnel and they were basically coordinating, providing air support, providing intel, strengthening the local forces. So, the Kurdish forces and other allied forces were the local fighters, you know, taking the heavy fight to ISIS with coordination and oversight and air power provided by the Americans.
REICHARD: Critics of this move say it will cost us credibility because allies will see this as breaking our commitments. What do you say to that? Are there good arguments for leaving Syria?
FERNANDEZ: Look, I’m speaking as someone who finds some good things to say about the president’s foreign policy in many ways. I think this is a perfect example of something where you can be right on the macro and be really, really wrong on the micro. The concept that we have too many troops, too many soldiers, too much of a presence in the world is a perfectly defendable one and one that I think many Americans share. But the reality is our presence on the ground in Syria with the SDF, with the YPG allies, Kurdish and non-Kurdish fighters was a force for good. It prevented our adversaries from gaining that territory. It protected religious minorities, including Syrian Christians in that area. So, you know, it was not a bad thing that we were doing. It was not a costly, heavy footprint like we see elsewhere with American soldiers, say, in Korea or Germany or something like that.
REICHARD: President Trump says we will continue to supply weapons to the Kurds for their fight against ISIS. How likely is that to happen and if it does will it be too little too late given the Turkish offensive that started on Wednesday?
FERNANDEZ: Yeah, I mean, nobody in the region knows what to believe. Threatening Turkey, welcoming Turkey to do this, talking about weapons, talking about nobody—everyone in the region is totally confused. They’re all drawing their own conclusions—both our enemies and our friends. So there’s a lot of head scratching going on in the region right now.
REICHARD: You noted in a recent Facebook post that Syrian jihadists and Islamists are already boasting about how they’re going to cleanse the area of Kurds and non-Muslim minority groups. If they’re successful, will that pave the way for ISIS to make a comeback in the area?
FERNANDEZ: Yeah. It’s really interesting. Turkey, of course, doesn’t want to lose its own soldiers, so what it is doing is kind of copying what others have done. They have Syrian fighters, Arab-Muslim fighters—some of them jihadist, some of them Islamists, some of them just mercenaries that used to fight against Assad or for Assad or with al-Qaeda or, you know, different groups. And they’re basically guns for hire. They’re these guys that are going to go in and kind of do the dirty work for the Turks and these are people who either 1) mercenaries or 2) have a kind of ideological affinity for the jihadist and Islamist worldview. So, nobody knows how it’s all going to turn out in the end. There are many, many questions and it’s very early. But certainly all the elements there for a kind of a revival or strengthening of jihadism in an area where they were defeated, or they weren’t there. All those elements are in play.
REICHARD: How is this news playing out in the Middle East?
FERNANDEZ: Well, it’s playing out, as I said—there’s a lot of despair among the minority of people who are supporters of the Syrian Kurds or who care, for example, about Syrian Christians in places like Qamishli, the Syrian quarter in Qamishli got shelled just a little while ago and there are reports of people being killed. So that’s one way it’s being reported. But a lot of the impact of it is this broader dimension which is just what do we believe from the Americans. Are the Americans leaving? And if the Americans are leaving, really leaving the Middle East, then it means for us—us meaning Turkey, meaning Iran, meaning Russia, meaning Saudi Arabia—to do what we can to get as much of the region as we can, as much influence, as many alliances as we can to, you know, to ramp up our power.
REICHARD: Former U.S. Ambassador Alberto Fernandez is president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Thanks so much for joining us today!
FERNANDEZ: Thank you.