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U.S. Withdrawal From Syria

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Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor to the vice president of Middle East and Africa at the United States Institute of Peace, discusses implications of the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Syria.

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Speaker

Mona Yacoubian

Senior Advisor to the Vice President of Middle East and Africa, United States Institute of Peace

Presider

Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President of National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the CFR Winter/Spring 2020 Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you for joining us.

Today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website at CFR.org/Academic if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Mona Yacoubian with us today to talk about the implications of the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Syria. Ms. Yacoubian is senior advisor to the vice president on the Middle East and Africa at the United States Institute of Peace. Her research focuses on conflict analysis and prevention in the Middle East, with a specific focus on Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Prior to joining USIP, Ms. Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East Bureau at USAID, where she was responsible for Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Before her tenure at USAID, she was a senior advisor at the Stimson Center, and served as the North Africa analyst in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She also held an international affairs fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations and is a CFR member.

So, Mona, thanks very much for being with us today. We really appreciate your taking the time. I thought we could just begin by talking about the implications of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and what—give us your thoughts on it.

YACOUBIAN: Terrific. Irina, thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a real pleasure to have this call. And I see from the list that we’ve got students and universities represented from across the country, and it looks like even across the globe. So it’s a real pleasure to have a chance to do this.

I thought, before diving into Syria, if it’s OK, I’d like to take just a couple moments and talk about the U.S. Institute of Peace, because it occurs to me that not all of the students on the line may be aware of USIP and our work. And I would in particular want to underscore that USIP.org, that’s our website, is a terrific resource for those students who are interested in particular in the fields of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. We’re a national nonpartisan institution. We were founded by Congress about thirty-five years ago. Our mission is really dedicated to the notion that a world without violent conflict is not only possible, but it’s practical, and it’s actually essential for U.S. and global security. We are active across fifty-one countries in the world and we have a field presence in thirteen countries, including places like Iraq and Afghanistan. So just a pick plug for students in particular, visit our website USIP.org if you’ve got—if you’re interested and want to dig deeper.

OK, with that let me—let me dive into Syria. And Irina, you’ve laid out a big and, I would say, very important question, which is the implications of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. And I won’t go into it at this point; if there’s questions we can talk about a bit the background to the decision to pull troops out of Syria. We now have a residual force there of about five (hundred) to six hundred on the ground. This is down from a high at its height of two thousand forces on the ground. And what I’d really like to convey to those on the call is that the implications of the U.S. withdrawal are significant and negative in terms of their impact on U.S. national security interests. And in particular, I think what I want to do is highlight five key implications.

First, the withdrawal has really undermined the counter-ISIS campaign, which has entered, I would say, a delicate but critical phase following ISIS’s territorial defeat. Second—and I’m going to dig down into these deeper in a moment but let me lay the five of them out first. Second, the withdrawal really compromised badly, I would say, our partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or the SDF. This is our key partners on the ground in the campaign against ISIS.

Third, the pullback actually had the effect of facilitating Turkey’s incursion into northeast Syria, which has had a number of destabilizing effects. Fourth, it has enabled the expansion of influence into northeast Syria by key adversaries, in particular I would underscore Russia, the Assad regime, and Iran. And fifth, it has deprived the U.S. of a key source of leverage that could have been used at the negotiating table. We all believe that the only real way to resolve the conflict in Syria is through a peaceful political settlement. And by sort of pulling out, we’ve lost, I would argue, a very important piece of leverage that might have helped us shape a more stable and favorable political settlement to the conflict—which, I would note, is now nearly a decade long.

So let me now sort of turn and dive just a little bit deeper into each of those five key implications, and then I’m happy to take people’s comments and questions. So first, on the counter-ISIS campaign, I think it’s really important to underscore that territorial defeat is not the same as enduring defeat. And indeed, there are a number of ISIS fighters still in Iraq and Syria. And I think it’s important to note that the border between Iraq and Syria is still somewhat porous. Last week Jim Jeffrey, who is the special representative for Syria and the special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS—last week he estimated that there are between fourteen thousand and eighteen thousand active fighters still in the area.

And counter-terrorism experts have noted that ISIS today is stronger than al-Qaida in Iraq was—it’s the precursor organization to ISIS—at the height of its strength in 2006 and ’(0)7 in Iraq. And we continue to see indicators of ISIS activity—the presence of sleeper cells, IED attacks, assassinations, and so forth. So the drawdown of U.S. forces essentially led to a diminished pace of counter-ISIS operations directed against these remnants. And that raises concerns that they can exploit any sort of security vacuums that may arise. And indeed, I think it’s important to remember what happened in Iraq in 2011, when the U.S. withdrew somewhat precipitously. And that, of course, along with other things, helped to set the conditions for the rise of ISIS out of the ashes of al-Qaida.

In many ways, the territorial defeat of ISIS was really the easy part. The hard part is stabilizing areas that have been liberated from ISIS, clearing out IEDs, removing rubble, restoring essential services like water, electricity, health services, and building the capacity of local governance structures. All of these kinds of tasks were really the focus of what was happening in northeast Syria and what our military presence was seeking to enable with partner forces on the ground by having a secure environment. And so all of that is threatened somewhat with the U.S. pullback.

Secondly, on the Kurds, I think it’s important to just underscore that Kurdish trust has been badly eroded. There’s always been the notion that they could well negotiate a deal to return back into the fold, as it were, with the Assad regime. But those efforts now, if anything, have accelerated, understandably so. They’re being facilitated by Russia. And it raises bigger questions about, again, sort of the longevity of our partnership with the Kurds, the intel, cooperation, and other sort of vital security-related cooperation, how sustainable is that going to be over time?

Also, I think it’s important to underscore that when the Turks invaded northeast Syria, the Kurds—their attention, of course, was distracted from what they were doing in areas where they’re working with us. And they pulled off a number of their fighters to go and push back against the Turkish incursion. Now, this has had a real impact on the ISI detention facilities and displacement camps that are under Kurdish guard and control. And so in many instances they had to eliminate even perhaps by half the number of security forces and guards patrolling these sites. And that potentially could have a real negative impact, should there be prison breaks and so forth. And finally, on this issue of partnership, there’s the bad precedent that our action sets cross the region, with many allies questioning how reliable of a partner is the United States.

Third, on Turkey’s destabilizing incursion, in many ways I think this is the most dramatic impact of the pullback. The incursion took place on October 9. And I would argue, in many ways, it was a real game changer, that it’s reordered the balance of power in northeast Syria. It has also led to significant displacement. About two hundred thousand civilians were displaced, including about eighteen thousand who are now refugees in northern Iraq—in the Kurdish-dominated area of northern Iraq. There were war crimes committed against Kurdish civilians, and the area remains very volatile and unstable. There are real concerns that Turkey should seek to further expand its control beyond the zone that it currently occupies.

You also have concerns about the threat that President—Turkish President Erdogan has leveled, in which he is threatening to send back a million or more Syrian refugees who are currently in Turkey—back into this zone in the northeast. That would be also incredible destabilizing and would really create conditions for new conflicts to emerge.

Fourth, on the expanding influence by our adversaries, I’ve alluded to it previously. The U.S. withdrawal has really left Russia as now the undisputed powerbroker in Syria. Russians quickly occupied bases that were abandoned by the U.S. You see the Assad regime moving into areas that were once held by the United States and its Kurdish partners on the ground. And Syrians in these areas are very worried about being arrested, detained, or even worse. And Iran is also taking advantage of a diminished U.S. presence, in particular in areas around the border with Iraq.

Finally, on this question of U.S. leverage, so our presence on the ground, of course, was in concert with the Syrian Democratic Forces, about a sixty-thousand-strong local force. And together, at the height of our presence there, the U.S. and the SDF controlled about 30 percent of Syrian territory. And it’s not just any Syrian territory that they controlled. It’s an area that has encompassed critical resources in Syria, that in many ways is the lifeblood of the Syrian economy. About 70-80 percent of Syria’s oil and gas resources are in this part of the country. Two-thirds of Syria’s water is in this northeastern area of Syria. And it’s also very rich in agricultural land. Seventy percent of the country’s wheat production originates in these areas. It’s literally the country’s breadbasket.

And so by sort of withdrawing and pulling away from—I would argue we sort of let go of a very important piece of leverage, a potential way to have real influence on negotiations that might go forward to help bring this conflict to an end. I think it would have provided us with an important ability to help shape the way these negotiations might have—might have gone. And unfortunately, by pulling out in the way that we have, we’ve sort of essentially let loose that very important piece of—piece of leverage.

So I think I put out quite a bit. And I’ve tried to pack a lot of details into a relatively short period of time. Why don’t I pause here, Irina? And I’m happy to take questions, or comments, or, you know, clarifications, if that’s helpful.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful Thanks so much, Mona. Let’s open it up to the group of students for questions.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Kentucky Wesleyan College.

Q: Yes. I have a question about U.S. policy towards the Kurds. Am I correct that the U.S. has labeled the Kurds in Turkey as a terrorist organization for a number of years, and yet in Syria the Kurds have been our allies and, as you say, they’re detaining some ISIS followers there? Are there two kinds of Kurds? Or what’s the rationale for this apparent strange policy regarding Kurds as both good and evil? Thank you.

YACOUBIAN: That is—yep, that’s a terrific question. And you’ve put your finger on one of the very many complexities that come to bear when we talk about Syria. So you’re absolutely right. The Kurdish organization in Turkey, the PKK, is a designated terrorist organization by the United States. There are a number of Kurdish entities in Syria, some of whom are aligned with much more moderate Kurdish factions—for example, the Kurdish factions with whom we worked closely in Iraq, to add yet another layer of complexity. But there are other Kurds who have close ties to the PKK. And that includes the Kurds with whom we have allied ourselves in Syria on the ground.

I don’t want to throw too many acronyms out there, because it starts to get really crazy—it becomes an alphabet soup. But the YPG, which is the sort of—the armed element of the Kurdish factions on the ground that we’re working with in Syria has close ties to the PKK. This was and remains an enduring issue of concern. Certainly an enormous issue with our Turkish ally, because the Turks have been very, very concerned. And they’ve even said to us: Why are you allying with one terrorist organization—i.e., the Syrian Kurds, the YPG—in order to fight another terrorist organization, ISIS?

And I think, to be honest, the way we managed it in the moment—and there’s a long history to this—was we sort of finessed that connection between Syrian Kurds and the terrorist PKK organization. There was great urgency at the time, in 2014-2015, when we ended up deciding to partner with the Kurds to fight ISIS. There’s a whole story behind that which I can get into if people are interested. But an urgent sense of needing to find a local partner on the ground. And the Syrian Kurds really fit the bill in many ways. And so we were able, or we did, somewhat paper over, quite frankly, these kind of ties to a designated terrorist organization, the PKK.

Ultimately we encouraged, and the Kurds did, attract a large a number of Arabs into what became the Syrian Democratic Forces. So the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, our local partner on the ground, is about 50 percent Kurdish and 50 percent Arab. But the vast majority—the command and control, the senior leadership positions, are held by the Kurds. And so this does continue to this day to be a source of great tension and animosity between the United States and Turkey, precisely because of that terrorist link that you opened the question with, to the PKK, which is based in Turkey, and Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Penn College.

Q: My name is Nick—Nicholas Millen (sp) from Penn College.

My question is, does the U.S. withdrawal make us look untrustworthy in the Middle East? And how could it impact those high-level negotiations in regards to the rising tensions?

YACOUBIAN: That’s a great question. And as I alluded to, yes, I think it does have an impact on how both allies and adversaries look at the United States and our reliability as a partner. Certainly, I think, as we come to rely more often on what we call these partnered operations, working with local forces on the ground—and our military has been very happy with the partnership with the Syrian Kurds. I think we circulated, I hope, an article that I wrote in which I talk at length—or, write at length—about this model, which is known as by, with, and through. And it proved enormously successful in Syria, where we liberated some twenty thousand square miles of Syrian territory but lost six Americans. Which—you know, losing one American is one too many, but a far, far, far smaller number than the ten-thousand-plus Kurdish fighters who were lost in that battle.

So to have that kind of depth of reliance, and to the extent that our partner even lost a lot of their blood in the name of battling ISIS, and then to sort of seem as though we are withdrawing rather precipitously and without ensuring that there’s some sort of way in which some of their interests are—the Kurdish, our partner—interests are protected, certainly, I think, does not resonate well in the region with other allies, who then look and question as well: Well, how reliable is the United States going to be as a partner or an ally? And here, I think we haven’t yet seen the impact, but I think there is going to be concern going down the road that when the U.S. seeks to partner with local forces on the ground, that it will be much more difficult to make that case given the sense of how we treated our Kurdish partners, and the notion that the U.S. simply cannot be trusted to stand by and respect, and be a reliable partner—you know, maintain a reliable partnership.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Lewis University.

Q: Hi. So Turkey has recently six million registered refugees and has recently stated that it is threatening to relocate one to two million refugees back to Syria. Would they truly do this? Or if they could do this or would do this, where would they expect these refugees to go?

YACOUBIAN: Another terrific question. And you’re correct. That figure of 3.6 million is correct. And I would note that in absolute numbers Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees of any country in the world. And that’s not insignificant. What we have found is that over the, you know, last five-six years that Turkey has been hosting these refugees, we are finding that it is becoming an increasingly contentious issue domestically. I mean, if we think about how controversial the issue of refugees here—is here in the U.S., it is similarly a very—increasingly controversial and contentious issue in Turkey, where they’ve had a downturn in their economy. And so many Turkish citizens are really clamoring to say: Why are we continuing to have all these Syrians here, and they should go back.

There are some people who think that, in fact, the Syrian refugee issue may have played into President Erdogan’s party losing local elections in Istanbul, which is—which is significant. And so we’re seeing that this is becoming—the Syrian refugee issue is becoming much more of a domestic issue for President Erdogan. And that likely explains his fairly charged rhetoric on, you know, insisting that a million or two million, and I’ve heard even at some point he has said more than two million, refugees would be sent back into Syria.

What I understand from Turkish colleagues is that a lot of this is rhetoric. It’s meant for domestic public consumption to try to assuage some of these feelings of resentment that are growing in Turkey that even President Erdogan himself understands. And I think most of us who follow issues related to displacement and refugees know full well that it would be virtually impossible to send a million to two million Syrian refugees back into Syria. International law dictates that refugees not be forcibly returned to their countries. And most Syrian refugees, when they’re interviewed, while they would ultimately love to return to their homes, love to return to Syria, they don’t feel safe to go back to Syria. Many of them will say they don’t feel safe to go back to Syria as long as Bashar al-Assad is in power. And unfortunately, that is for the foreseeable future.

So it’s highly unlikely, despite the rhetoric, that President Erdogan would even try or that he could send back one to two million refugees. That said, a couple of points—red flags to be aware of. One is there have been some forcible returns of Syrian refugees from Turkey into Syria. This happened over the summer, in which some number of Syrian refugees were forced back into Idlib which, if you all are watching the news, this is the area that is currently under massive very brutal government offensive. So that’s obviously very concerning.

The other point is what I said in the beginning of the call, that he does continue to say that he will send refugees back into this area called Operation Peace Spring. This is the seventy-five-mile long, along the border with—between Syria and Turkey—it’s a zone. This is where the Turks invaded in in October. This is the zone that they occupy. And this is where he is saying he would send refugees back. That would be enormously destabilizing because many of the refugees that are in Turkey are not from that area. Some are, for sure. But many aren’t. And you have issues of areas that were Kurdish-dominant and no longer are, and sending Arabs into Kurdish areas, et cetera.

So that’s what—that’s what he has envisioned. But I think the likelihood of it actually happening is quite low. But nonetheless, given how serious that would be, it’s something that demands a lot of vigilance and international attention.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Syracuse University.

Q: Hello. I have a question about, you know, what you mentioned. You know, like the rhetoric, like, in Turkey, and Erdogan, like, wants to send them back to, like, Syria. Also, like, Europe as well. I just want to ask this question, like, there are more than, like, four million Syria refugees. And, you know, like in Turkey they’re having education, like, free. They don’t pay at all. And they really need, like, financial help. Do you think, like, European Union and the United States, you know, provides like, assistance, like, financial help? That’s my question.

YACOUBIAN: Thank you. It’s an excellent question.

So Turkish President Erdogan did indeed a negotiate a deal with the European Union after 2015, when many might recall there was a massive influx of refugees—Syrian refugees and others, Afghani and others—into Europe. And this refugee influx was actually quite destabilizing. Many people connect it to the rise of xenophobia, of populist nationalism. Some even connect it to Brexit. And so this was and remains an issue of great concern to Europe. And so they sort of made a deal with President Erdogan. And I believe the figure is about $6 billion in assistance that goes to Turkey in exchange for Erdogan basically keeping the refugees there in Turkey.

Now, I mean, there’s some people who talk about this being really quite—well, that it’s essentially weaponizing refugees as a means of getting money or assistance. That said, my own sense is it’s very important for the European Union and the United States to provide assistance to refugee-hosting countries. Hosting refugees really is an international public good. And it comes, though, a great costs, because these refugees largely are not in camps. They live in host communities. I think as you noted, their children go to school, people need to work. We see this problem very significantly in Lebanon, which hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. And so I guess in answer to your question, I think it is important for the international community, for the United States in particular, and Europe, to continue to provide assistance to those countries that are hosting large numbers of refugees.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Wheaton College.

Q: Hi. My name is Katie (sp). I’m at Wheaton College.

My question is, what do you think was a major factor influencing the president’s decision for the withdrawal?

YACOUBIAN: So excellent question. I think President Trump actually has long stated a desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. And there are many people who say, frankly, it should not have come as a surprise to anyone when he actually acted on something that he has been saying actually quite consistently for some time. His first public statement on the need to pull Syrian—to pull U.S. troops from Syria dates back at least to, you know, March or April of 2018.

And I think in part this is because of, honestly, a promise that President Trump made when he was elected that he was going to end the forever wars, that he was going to pull U.S. troops out of places like Syria. He’s also talked about it for Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think more broadly, we’re seeing sentiment in this country where people really are tired of the idea of forever wars. There’s a real fatigue with American military engagements abroad. And so I think it’s not just President Trump. I think it’s actually reflective of a broader, deeper mood in our country where politicians on both sides of the aisle often talk about the need to pull Americans back, and to end a lot of the sort of military interventions that we’ve been engaged in in the Middle East.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Rutgers University.

Q: Yes. In your article in the United States Institute of Peace you write that the ten-point deal will deepen Russia-Turkey cooperation in Syria. And I believe that it will bring us, in terms of consequences, further down the line with this war. My question is, why is the United States not acting to open any type of dialogue between any of the two regimes?

YACOUBIAN: So just so—I want to make sure I understand your question. Are you saying why is the United States not doing more to open dialogue with Iran and with the Assad regime? Is that what you mean? Or with Russia or—can you be a little bit more specific?

Q: With Russia and Turkey specifically.

YACOUBIAN: Russia and Turkey. So of course, Turkey is our NATO ally. And we talk—in fact, I think I saw in the press that President Trump just the other day had a call with President Erdogan. So there is actually quite a lot of discussion back and forth between the U.S. and Turkey. As I said, we are—we are both members of the NATO alliance. They are our erstwhile ally. Although that said, I think U.S.-Turkish relations really are at a—at a very difficult point. They were at a slightly lower point, perhaps, a few months ago, but I think there are real concerns about the direction that President Erdogan is taking his country, both domestically and, in some instances as well, in terms of how he is involving and intervening in other parts of the world, in Syria in particular.

On Russia, of course, this is also a very, very politically sensitive and difficult issue given the issues around Russian interference in the U.S. elections in 2016. We are now, of course, entering—we are now in another election year, in 2020. And all of the issues around Ukraine, and our relationship with Ukraine, and the role that Russia has played, and so forth. There have been attempts, and there are efforts—we do talk to the Russians. We actually talk to the Russians fairly regularly on Syria. But mostly for deconfliction. That is, so we have our—you know, we control some parts of Syrian airspace. The Russians and their air assets control other parts of Syrian airspace. It’s very important that we not have some sort of inadvertent clash. And so there has been active what’s called deconfliction that has gone on, really since the Russians came into Syria in 2015.

What’s interesting is now with the U.S. pullback in the northeast, as I noted, there are now Russians in parts of northeast Syria, where there weren’t before. And we are having increasing concerns about U.S. forces on the ground and Russian forces on the ground being in closer proximity to each other. And that’s prompting concern that there could actually be an inadvertent clash on the ground. And so we’re seeing efforts to heighten deconfliction of ground forces as well.

In terms of deeper strategic talks on Syria, that really is fairly stalled at this point. I think the U.S. and Russia are fairly far apart on Syria right now. And so it doesn’t look like there’s much room at this point for more negotiation and dialogue. But hopefully that will change.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Molloy College.

Q: Yes, hello. My name is Christopher Griffin (sp) from Molloy College.

And my question is that—do you believe that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria has led to an increase, decrease, or no change whatsoever to the rate of terrorist recruitment—specifically for groups such as ISIS?

YACOUBIAN: That’s a great question. And I would argue it’s almost impossible to answer in any sort of accurate way. I mean, kind of, one, I don’t know how one could directly connect a U.S. decision to withdraw with recruiting and whether there’s a—in other words, if there was a spike in recruitment that we were watching, could you connect it directly to the U.S. withdrawal? I think that would be very difficult.

However, that said, I think there is real concern, as I noted, that U.S. withdrawal does sort of open space. It creates vacuums. And nature abhors a vacuum. Something’s always going to fill that vacuum. And so the concern is that these ISIS operatives—and as I said early in the call, you know, there are quite a large number of ISIS fighters. And the estimate—you know, the estimates vary significantly. But again, our own U.S. government is saying fourteen (thousand) to eighteen thousand ISIS fighters in this area. And so they could easily take advantage of that withdrawal to begin to reconstitute themselves.

And the issue, of course, with an organization like ISIS is that success begets success. So if there is an ISIS that is reorganizing itself, that is resurging in some ways, that could serve as a boon for recruitment. And so this is a very difficult issue to track, but it’s one that we have to watch very, very closely.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Florida State.

Q: Thank you so much for the presentation. This is University College London. And we actually have two really good student questions. So this is question one of two.

Q: Hi, hello. My name is Francesca (sp). I know that you said that President Trump made this promise in 2018, but I was wondering why this withdraw happened if these outcomes were expected?

Q: And we also have question two of two.

Q: Hi. So in light of the question we have already answered about President Erdogan’s threat to send back refugees, could you address the concerns around potential ethnic cleansing, and whether the international community at present is prepared to handle or respond promptly if a humanitarian disaster like this does take place? Thank you.

YACOUBIAN: Great. So great questions both. In terms of why did the withdrawal take place if we—you know, if saw what—if we knew what the implications were, again, as I—as I stated at the outset, President Trump has been very consistently and fairly committed to this idea that the U.S. needs to withdraw from Syria. That he really does not—it seems he really does not see any value in what U.S. forces would be doing on the ground in Syria. That said, what’s really more interesting is with all of that he has attempted, and has sort of tweeted, and pulled us out of Syria now, frankly, multiple times. And with that, we continue to hold on with even, at this point, some sort of residual force in Syria. And I think that is precisely because of how negative, how significantly bad for U.S. national security interests a full and complete U.S. withdrawal would be.

So just to provide a little history—I’m glad you asked the question, because it gives me the opportunity to say—President Trump first talks publicly about withdrawing our troops in, you know, March or April of 2018. Then we—and on and off after that. But then we have the famous tweet in December of 2018, which is really what got the ball rolling on U.S. withdrawal. And following that tweet, which led to the resignation of then-Secretary of Defense Mattis and the Special Envoy for the Counter-ISIS Campaign Brett McGurk—they resigned in opposition to that decision—people were able to walk the president back somewhat, and we ended up maintaining about a thousand special operators on the ground from what had been two thousand.

Now, fast-forward, and we have, again, the call with—between President Trump and Erdogan on October 6 of last year, 2019. There, again, we’re going to pull the U.S. troops completely out. Instead, again—(laughs)—there was an effort to walk back that decision. And now we have about five hundred to six hundred. But the president is saying that the reason that they are there is to, quote, “protect the oil.” That’s his primary reason, in his mind, for keeping them there. And we can go into the pros and cons of that. So essentially the question really more is why haven’t we withdrawn more? And the answer is we haven’t completed a full withdrawal precisely because of how significant the implications of that withdrawal are for U.S. national security interests.

The question on ethnic cleansing, this is a huge issue in Syria. And it’s one, unfortunately, that has characterized this conflict across communities, across geographies in Syria. There are huge concerns about ethnic cleansing, for example, of Kurds. We’ve already seen this happen in the Kurdish-dominated canton of Afrin in northwest Syria. Turkey invaded that using Syrian proxies and essentially displaced large numbers of Kurds and replaced them with Arab—predominantly Arab IDPs from other parts of Syria. And this has caused international human rights organizations and others to have an outcry. There’s also unfortunately been ethnic cleansing, of course, of Sunnis. There are vast areas of Syria that were once predominantly Sunni that are no longer.

Unfortunately, this is a concern across the board in Syria. It’s not one that will go away anytime soon. I unfortunately think the international community is—has been shown to be, unfortunately, quite incapable or unable to really stop these kinds of—this kind of ethnic cleansing when there is a determined foe or adversary who seeks to undertake those kinds of measures.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Occidental College.

Q: Hi. I’m Sam Sachs, representing Occidental College.

And I know in your article on the post—or, the article in the post-American Middle East you mentioned the Israeli-Palestine crisis. And I was wondering, in lieu of Trump’s new peace plan for the Israeli-Palestine two-state solution, how will that affect future involvement of the U.S. in the Middle East and surrounding countries?

YACOUBIAN: Well, I mean, I think, you know, the—certainly the plan has not been well-received, certainly by the Palestinians, and also, in part, I want to argue, by many in the Arab world as well. And so I think there are real concerns that this plan is—as announced—is potentially a catalyst for more conflict in the region, not less. I think the U.S.—you know, our engagement in the Middle East—I would argue we’re kind of at a—we’re at an inflection point. As I said earlier, there is growing pressure in the public to really question, why are we were? What are our strategic interests? Are there any strategic interests in the Middle East still?

Martin Indyk wrote a really interesting piece for the Wall Street Journal, in which he noted that America’s interests in the Middle East have changed structurally. And I think that’s right. I would argue that since 9/11 we really haven’t engaged in a way that is effective in the Middle East. We have viewed the Middle East solely through the lens—or, largely through a counterterrorism lens. Our engagements have been heavily weighted toward military or kinetic engagement.

And so I would argue that it’s not about pulling back from the Middle East, it’s about shifting and reordering the priorities of how we engage in the Middle East, in a way that works better for the U.S. interest—because I would argue what we’re doing hasn’t necessarily worked well for our interests—in a way that works better for the region, and in a way that actually ends up, ideally, helping this region to become more stable. It continues to be, unfortunately, a source of instability and conflict. And instability and conflict that really is not contained or containable to the region. I think that’s another lesson that we’ve learned from Syria.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Miami Dade College.

Q: Yes. Good afternoon. My name is George Vilardi (ph). And I’m representing Professor Linean (ph).

And the question that I had is actually with the U.S. forces—or, at least, most of the U.S. forces—withdrawing from Syria—some parts of Syria, and the Russians filling in that vacuum, like you mentioned before, what could be done to prevent conflicts—I guess more of the conflict between the U.S. and Russian forces? Because just about this week, for example, there was a standoff between a Russian convoy that was blocked by U.S. forces. The Russians were trying to access the oil fields, and the U.S. has been blocking them. So it seems like there’s really not a deconfliction line that is working very well right now.

YACOUBIAN: No, that’s a great question. In fact, the incident you refer to is exactly what I was thinking about as I was saying we now have this new normal, which is where you have U.S. ground forces and Russian ground forces in close proximity to one another. And it is really concerning that there could, in fact, be some kind of inadvertent clash. And so I do think what it requires is an updating on these deconfliction lines. My understanding is there is some of that that goes on, but clearly it will need to be intensified. But then ultimately—and I don’t know how we get there, again, given the sensitivities domestically here in the U.S.—but ultimately there needs to be more of a discussion, I would argue, with the Russians on Syria.

There needs to be an exploration of whether there is any sort of space for overlapping interests. I think—I think the Russians, the U.S., the Europeans, others, pretty much most actors in the world would like to see this festering conflict come to an end. And so if that could be the starting point, is there a way to sort of work together toward a more sustainable settlement? But I think, you know, your question is an important one. And again, I think in the tactical sense it’s important to sort of intensify efforts at deconfliction. It’s going to become that much more important precisely because you now have ground forces in proximity of each other.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Our next question came in via email from someone who is listening, participating via Skype. This questions is from Nathan Hallman (sp), who is at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver—(inaudible).

So his question to you is: You mentioned that the Kurdish territory in Syria has two-thirds of water and 70 percent of wheat. Where are the ISIS fighters in the area getting their food and water? And who is supplying ISIS with these supplies necessary to continue their campaign?

YACOUBIAN: So again, let me be clear. ISIS no longer has any sort of territorial control. It’s important to underscore that. So there’s no longer a caliphate, or there’s no longer even appreciable pieces of territory that are under ISIS control. But that said, there are fighters that are in the desert areas, an area called the Badia in Syria. There are fighters, there are people that are sort of able to go back and forth across that porous border with Iraq. And there are, of course, sleeper cells living in and amongst the population. And so it’s not a matter of—let’s see if I can put it this way—of a coherent military entity that needs to be supplied. It’s sleeper cells and, you know, individual fighters that are living in and amongst the populations in those areas, and that are therefore able to survive, just as anybody else does.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take our next question from Syracuse University.

Q: Yes. Hello. My question is, how will the One Belt, One Road Initiative advance China’s interests in Syria? And what does that mean to the United States? Could this be a potential threat? And how does our president view this situation?

YACOUBIAN: So it’s interesting. Syria has certainly become an arena, in my view, for great-power competition. But it is primarily with Russia. The Chinese thus far have shown, I would say, only limited interest in Syria. And I have not—you know, the Belt and Road Initiative I’m not tracking closely enough, but my understanding is that, to put mildly, Syria is a fairly risky place for investment right now, for obvious reasons. And I think the Chinese are relatively risk-averse in their investment strategy.

And there are many other places in the Middle East, and certainly in Africa, where they can invest and they can project their influence, and where they are doing exactly that. We haven’t really seen intense Chinese interest in Syria to date. And honestly, given the kind of increasing sanctions that the U.S., in particular, is putting on Syria—these are sanctions that are meant precisely to dissuade or serve as a disincentive for any sort of international investment in Syria’s reconstruction. My own sense is that we’re not going to really see much from China anytime soon in Syria.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the Air Force Special Operations School.

Q: Hi. My question goes to your comment earlier that since September 11 there’s been too much of a focus on military solutions. And considering your development background I’m curious about what types of nonmilitary solutions do you think would have had a chance of overcoming a deep-seated revenge mentality?

YACOUBIAN: Thank you so much. Great question. So I think we lost a valuable opportunity on September 12, 2001. I think of course it was going to be important to respond kinetically to those that perpetrated the attack against us on 9/11. And so it would have—some of the attacks in Afghanistan—limited, I would say—made sense. Iraq I think was a strategic disaster, and we’re still unfortunately dealing with the consequences of that. I would argue that diplomacy and development, the two other Ds of the three-stooled three Ds of defense, development, and diplomacy—that diplomacy and development should have been in the lead.

We talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict earlier in the call. There was the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002. There was a world that was really sort of with the United States, almost across the—across the board. And would that have been a moment to have taken that momentum in a different direction, to have taken that momentum toward solving some of the festering conflicts of the region, towards addressing issues that have to do with the grievances, the lack of dignity, corruption, other drivers of extremism that we continue to see in the region? In my view, if we had had the other two Ds, diplomacy and development, take the lead on our engagement in the Middle East over the last two decades, I think we’d be in a much, much better place than we are today.

The only other comment I’d make—and I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we look at the protests that are going on in Iraq, in Lebanon, protests that we’ve seen in Algeria. These grievances, this demand for dignity, for good governance, for an end to corruption—this has been sustained by populations in the region for two decades, even despite the horrific civil wars and other things that have gone on. And so my own sense I that the power of those grievances, the power of those demands really should drive how we think about the region and what the most constructive way is to engage in the region.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question—

FASKIANOS: We have two more questions, so—two more questions. So if we can have short questions, then—

YACOUBIAN: And I’ll make my answers brief as well.

FASKIANOS: Brief as well. And then we can get both of them in. So, great. Thank you. Over to you.

OPERATOR: Yes, our next question comes from Brigham Young University.

Q: Yeah. So kind of along the same vein with focusing on diplomacy and development moving forward in Syria, what does the domestic economy look like in Syria? Has there been any business growth or economic investment in the area?

YACOUBIAN: The domestic economy in Syria is dismal and becoming more so. You know, this is a country, obviously, it’s been through nearly a decade of war. Much of the—you know, the population lives in poverty, or is need of humanitarian assistance. The recent financial crisis in Lebanon has actually had a spillover effect into Syria because of its—as someone has described it, Lebanon was the one lung that was left for Syria to breathe on. And that has now been deprived. And so unfortunately I think that the prospects for Syria from a development perspective and economically are quite poor in the short- to medium-term.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Penn College.

Q: Do you foresee a possible future where Erdogan could be held responsible by the international community or the U.S. for war crimes committed by Turkish forces?

YACOUBIAN: I don’t. And I would be very clear—let me be very, very clear. The war crimes that have been committed have not been committed by Turkish national forces. They have been committed by Syrian—frankly, for lack of a better term—mercenaries or proxies under Turkish tutelage. But these—the forces on the ground that have been committing these crimes have been Syrian. And sadly, you know, again, there is blame to go all around when it comes to this conflict and the commission of war crimes and atrocities. And equally sadly it’s yet hard to see where the accountability lies.

This is going to be a huge issue in Syria, and I would argue in the region more broadly. And much, much more needs to be done to figure out where to and how to ensure justice and accountability for the many, many, many people that have suffered in Syria. And I’m afraid I’m not sure what that path is going to look like, but it’s going to be a key one to determine in order for there to be lasting peace and stability in Syria one day.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Mona, for this discussion. We are at the end of our time. We really appreciate your being with us, and to everybody for really great comments and questions. Again, you can follow Mona Yacoubian on Twitter at @MYacoubian. And as we started out at the beginning, I commend the website USIP to you—USIP.org. And you can see more of her work there as well. So I hope you all will do that.

Our next call will be on February 19 at 12 p.m. Eastern time. James Lindsay, our senior vice president, director of studies, and the Maurice Greenberg chair at CFR will lead a conversation on foreign policy in election 2020. And in the meantime, I also encourage you to follow us at @CFR_Academic on Twitter, visit CFR.org for research and analysis. We have launched an Election 2020 microsite that seeks to give an understanding of critical global challenges facing the winner of the U.S. presidential election. You can follow all of the candidates’ positions, statements on foreign policy, as well as their responses to a foreign policy questionnaire that we issued. We also have podcasts and a video series debunking some of the myths in foreign policy. So I commend that to all of you and hope that you will join us on February 19 for the next session.

So thank you all, and thank you, Mona Yacoubian.

YACOUBIAN: Thank you so much. What a terrific conversation. And I really appreciate the great comments and questions.

(END)

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