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tv   SETA Foundation Discussion of U.S. Withdrawal from Syria  CSPAN  January 22, 2019 4:13pm-5:41pm EST

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they have to be winning to agree a deal. and the point about sitting down -- the point about sitting down and talking with people across this house is to identify those issues on which it will be possible for us to secure support, to make changes, such that we can secure the support around this house. >> on monday, prime minister theresa may reported a new brexit deal back to the house of commons. and tomorrow the british house of commons meets for their weekly question time. watch live coverage of prime minister's questions wednesday at 7:00 a.m. eastern on c-span 2. now a look at the president's recent decision to withdraw u.s. troops from syria. we'll hear from the former assistant secretary of state for political military affairs in the george w. bush administration and a group of academics. this was hosted by the foundation for political economic and social research. it's about an hour and twenty five minutes. >> thank you for joining us this
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morning on this discussion on the u.s. withdrawal from syria. as you all know, on december 19th, 2018, president trump announced the withdrawal of u.s. troops from syria. and ever since, there's been a big debate about how to pull out of syria, when, and who would replace u.s. functions on the ground and what will happen to the forces on the ground that allied with the u.s. to fight isis and what would be the regional implications. so there has been a lot of debate, and we are hoping that we won't cover all of it, because that will take probably many hours. we are trying to focus only on the withdrawal decision, and what it could mean on the ground and the relationship with
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turkey. how the two nato allies can figure out how to do this. but i'm sure in the q & a session, many issues will come up. and we'll try to respond as much as possible. we obviously have a distinguished panel of panelists here with me. just to my left, general -- retired general mark kimmet. he's a current defense consultant, but he appears on cnn and writes for -- i'm not going to go into his distinguished, long bio. you can read it in the handout. we appreciate him being here to discuss this issue with us. just to his left, hasan hasan is a prominent analyst on syria. he's syrian himself. he is with the tahrir institute
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and with georgetown working on counterterrorism issues and isis. just to his left, andrew tabler is no less prominent analyst with the washington institute for policy. we are very grateful they are here. my colleague's plane is busy de-icing. we are hoping at some point he'll make it. but we will proceed without him at this point. and i may have to intervene a bit more to discuss turkey-related issues in his absence. but without further ado, i just want to turn to my left to general kimmet for his brief introductory remarks. thank you. >> well, first of all, thanks for putting this together.
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and i was taken aback that andrew was referred to as distinguished, khan was referred to as distinguished and i was referred to as learned. i'm sorry that it took death of four americans to try to put more highlight on this question of the u.s. withdrawal out of syria. i think the debate has been abysmally superficial. and any time you get a bipartisan consensus on anything in this town, you've got to question it severely. i'm afraid that many of the decisions and the views on the withdrawal were made presumptively, because people just don't like trump. but i'm an analyst.
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it is not my position to opine. it's my position to sort of lay out all the analytics on this. so my thesis remains, as i have said numerous times, both on television appearances and also in writing, that there remains legitimate reasons and perhaps overwhelmingly positive reasons for the united states to be getting out of syria, rather than staying in. we all understand the arguments about staying in range from, again, continuing to defeat isis, so on and so forth. but let's talk about the legitimate reasons that weren't behind the tweet that may have been put into consideration for the withdrawal. number one, isis may not be defeated. it is certainly degraded. caliphate is gone. their ability to operate as military forces no longer exists. but they still are a threat.
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nobody doubts that. however, they are not an existential threat to the united states. isis at this point is in 25 different countries. we're in two of them fighting isis. using this argument for staying in syria, simply to complete the destruction of isis carries over to the fact, well, if they're not completely defeated there and we need to stay, then the question is, why aren't we in 23 other countries? so that's number one. because really, at this point, it's somebody else's problem. once something is not an existential threat to the united states, the question is, do we want to put our blood and treasure, as we did the other day, on the line when somebody else ought to be doing the job. the second point i'd make is candidly, we're ahead of our skis in syria. we have one purpose to be in syria. and that is to defeat and destroy isis. we were starting to see
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inevitable signs of mission creep inside syria. they were talking about training 40,000 local troops. that's a multiyear prospect. candidly, if there is any kind of post-syria resolution or political resolution, if we were there, no doubt, we would be signing up for sector northeast in the peace enforcement operations. i don't think the american people have had the issue of a sustained and extended u.s. presence in syria pulled to them. as a military person who has served around the world to include bosnia and a very short period of time in kosovo, with what the military was looking at, and additionally these other issues such as keeping an eye on the iranians, that was a ten-year mission, number one. and number two, it violated the terms of us being in that country. none of those are authorized under the authority for the use of military force.
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authority got us into syria to fight isis. all this other -- all these other missions, classic mission creep. third, this notion that -- and i'm not doing this because of where we are, but this notion that somehow the wpg are brave, democratic-seeking allies of the united states, i think needs to be questioned. when jim jeffrey used to talk about this, he reminded us that the mission of us working alongside with the wpg for the purpose of defeating isis was temporary, transactional and tactical. there was never an expectation that we had a responsibility to protect the wpg when the mission was done. we have now embraced that mission, fully understand -- fully understand.
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i think we also need to understand who our newest allies are. their background, what they want to do. what their long-term aspirations are, and say, is that in line with what we have done as americans and what we're planning to do there. i now need to check my notes of what i wrote. and that's my safe zones article. and then at that time, i was also concerned about and had an expectation that we were going to confront that inevitable period when the turkish forces would come into contact, not only with isis, but also with u.s. forces and the wpg. that was inevitable. and do we want to risk a major confrontation between two nato allies as we have to make the choice, do we fight the turks,
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do we fend the wpg, who owns what territory? so for all these reasons, primarily that of we're beyond our mission authorities, isis is degraded to the point where they're no longer our problem. we were looking at a long-term mission that has really not been well-advertised, and explained and sold to the american people. among other issues is why i think that there are legitimate reasons for us to be having a deep national debate, rather than superficial debate, if for no other reason, than to ensure that those four americans that were killed two days ago are respected for what they have done, because we owe that debate to be had. >> thank you, general. hasan. >> so i want to make two points. first one, i think one problem with this debate is i think --
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is that it has been hijacked by two arguments that i think are right, but they are irrelevant to the whole idea of americans being in syria or the american president inside syria. the first one is that we've heard it -- since trump announced the withdrawal, is that what can -- what could 2,000 american troops possibly do in syria against iran? and iran, i think, is irrelevant to this thing. the mission is not about iran inside syria. >> right. >> and some people say he was hijacked by people inside the government. but i also think analysts turned all the attention to iran, whether having 2,000 people are enough to fight iran or not. that's really -- for me, someone from eastern syria, but also as an analyst of syria, i think that's irrelevant. because once you settle the question of asset -- you know, you make peace with assad, iran
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becomes less of a problem. in my opinion, it becomes a problem for assad, not for us. because if assad wants autonomy in syria, he has to deal with iran and manage. the second argument that i think hijacked the debate was also how -- what could 2,000 troops or soldiers, american troops inside syria do against isis? as if these 2,000 people were fighting isis. or they are the sort of -- the spearhead of the fight against isis. i think that's also irrelevant. you could fight isis, you could stay in syria, you could have presence in syria. you could control and manage what your presence inside syria, without having these 2,000 troops. they could leave, and he could still decide with other countries the fate of this zone in eastern syria, which is one-third of syria. and i think this whole debate,
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you know -- watching it closely from day one, has been flawed from day one. and it was under the previous administration -- it was worsened by this administration. so both -- this is -- you know, both take blame for this. and it was flawed in the beginning, and i think kind of the regional sin of this sort of campaign is that it was predicated on this idea that you could ignore the syrian conflict and fight isis, which was really just a symptom of this whole conflict. so you ignore what others aspire to do inside syria, what their objectives are. you ignore turkey, you ignore the syrians. you ignore the kurds, as well. and, you know, other kurds -- whatever. and then you focus the effort and channel the effort to fight isis there. and that's the mission. and i think -- you remember the -- when the obama administration designed the campaign against isis, the debate was whether we should align ourselves with the syrian government to fight isis or not.
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and i think the side that won was, no, we don't want to basically align ourselves with the repressive regime like bashar assad's regime, but at the same time, we should stop -- it started to materialize and manifest itself and john kerry's plan to deescalate the conflict a year later, especially when the russians came in. even, i think -- i met someone senior at the time during the obama administration when the -- when the russians intervened in syria, they were partly happy about that. that somehow worrying about a collapse of the regime is no longer worry for the americans. they could just focus on isis and allow russia to stabilize the rest of syria. so the whole concept is flawed. but to move on to kind of the -- what's the danger of the withdrawal, i think that's what he wanted me to talk about, as
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well. obviously, i don't think the risk of this withdrawal is only limited to isis. in my opinion, the biggest worry -- and i think now it's being contained a little bit with the conversations that happened since and the slowing down of the withdrawal rather than immediate and rapid, was the -- unraveling the syrian conflict. because the syrian conflict was kind of deescalated by the russians, and turkey and others. but that -- the peace was fragile. and still fragile. it could collapse, crumble, we could see another wave of fighting that would be exploited not by the moderates, because the moderates have been decimated. no moderates are viable forces now or exist in syria. not from the opposition side. so it would be a bad fight if there is a renewed fight. and the -- kind of the rebel side or the -- hijacked by
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groups like nusra and isis. they would be the dominant forces. there is no question about that. no longer do we have the same dynamic we had in 2012, 2013 and between 2014. so that's one big worry for me. the other worry is isis, obviously. we can still put in forces. it's still -- they're -- forget about what headlines say these days. the americans' data say about the number of americans in isis. i still think there are thousands of isis sympathizers. not fighters. forget about the fighters. there are probably 1,000 or 2 fighters. there are still huge numbers of people who are back home, staying at home with their families. their children, their adults, still sympathizing with isis, but they are no longer in the fight. and i also don't claim that
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these are sleeper cells, meaning they are preparing for another day to fight. no. some of them are generally tired of the fight and they don't want to fight. so they're hanging out in neighboring countries in syria, in regime areas, as well, damascus and elsewhere. isis fighters who nobody knows about or not many people know about. some people see them, but they don't think they are still with isis. and i worry about these numbers, because the circumstances in syria will be -- will return to violence at some point. i think even academically, 40 to 60% of settled conflicts return to violence. and i think syria is -- will be one of those countries or conflicts that we're trying to find at some point. i think all these circumstances are, you know -- the circumstances in the areas where the americans used to operate are not ready for withdrawal. there's another point i want to talk about, but i think i should leave it there, because i kind
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of took long. which is about -- the idea was not about -- i mean, the americans were on the way out and isis on the way out. and trump's decision, you know -- sped up the withdrawal of the americans. but also slowed down the idea that isis was on the way out. >> thank you, hasan. andrew. >> first, thank you very much for the introduction. it's a pleasure to be up here, and it's always easy to go last or easier. although in this subject, maybe not. so just a couple of comments. first, i agree with my colleagues up here. >> one distinguished, one retired. >> exactly. but i think all of us agree, look, as somebody who is focused on syria for far too long, and
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i'm not syrian, in case you haven't guessed. but i have -- >> looks like one. >> but i focus on syria policy, as i think many of you know. i used to live in syria for quite some time and worked there. and have a deep affection for its people and sympathy. so one of the frustrating aspects of trying to talk about syria policy and the outcome of the syrian war is that -- is the superficial nature of the -- not only just the debate, but the basic material that goes into the debate. and the reason for that i don't think is because people are stupid or because they want to simplify it, necessarily. there are politics involved, unfortunately. it's enormously complex. anybody who has covered the lebanon or lebanese civil war will understand this. you have to really know your -- you have to know your back brief book very well in order to understand the moving parts. and so the -- and hasan did a
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very good job of talking about the -- sort of the eastern part of the country, the western part of the country, and so, you know, a couple of things. you'll read a lot of stories that bashar al assad has won the syrian civil war. it's almost in every paper every day. major papers. of course, the problem with that argument is, that's legally true. right? i mean, at least in the western part of the country. you have assad regime flagged forces with insignias in many parts of the country. and -- however, it's not the syrian arab army of old. many corps -- whole corps of the syrian military are organized by russia with units -- local units and national defense force units, with i have been trained by the irgc. and they are some insignias, as well. and they're in some areas out in the euphrates. and then others are also
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uniformed, and they have their insignias and they fly flags and march through eastern syria in broad daylight for everybody to see. right. and this is the way that the assad regime, with russian and iranian support, was able to take over about 60% of syrian territory or so. but in the other areas of syria where the fight against isis was first and foremost, i think, you had the intervention of turkey, which has helped with the syrian opposition take over two different areas that have played a major role. and then, of course, in eastern syria, where the united states partnered with the wpg to -- to defeat isis. and so the syrian civil war was not won by bashar al assad in a traditional way a leader would win back his territory. the way the war has settled out -- deescalated until now has
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been through foreign military intervention. and you can see this on the maps. i think the problem is, of course, the complexity. if you look at -- there are a number of outfits around town that put out some maps. whether it's at my institute, institute for the study of war. but a whole host of others. they'll show a little bit. a lot of this gets down into the realm of military intelligence which turkey and other parts are involved. the outcome of that war was unacceptable to two neighboring countries and remains so. one is turkey, which is the subject of our talk today. and the other one is israel. for israel, the outcome of shia militia and other iranian-backed units based in syria, moving heavy weapons into the country is something that they have recently talked and acted to.
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that's going to be a trend going forward, if this war is really going to settle out. the other, of course, aspect and it gets to today, turkey regards, which is understandingable, the pkk as an extensional threat. and the united states was in a challenge. the trump administration inherited a policy that it did not make, which is typical for the united states, right? we're a democracy. we shift every four or eight years, usually eight years these days. and sometimes it's radically so. and we inherited a policy where the united states backed the wpg. the wpg is the military wing of the pyd, which is the syrian wing of the pkk, right? and over that time, many american leaders went to the pyd leadership and wpg and said, hey, if you really want to spin off the pkk and not antagonize the turks, you really have to do it. you have to really, you know --
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you really need to spin off and become your own master, so to speak. there were a lot of things that weighed on that. i think first and foremost was the nature of the organization. i think the pkk and the pyd overlap heavily. there is some separation, but it was not enough to satisfy nato ally turkey. and this was something that i think many of us saw coming. it was an inevitability personally. my hope was that it was going to be more manageable. that we had more time. sometimes -- and general kimmet knows this better than i do. i have never served in the military other than rotc training in college and that doesn't count. sometimes you're ascended into a meeting or a situation to stall. you need time. and the u.s. needed time to try and work this out so that turkey and the wpg would not be antagonized and the ultimate victors of this would not be
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isis. and the assad regime -- and iran. i'm not pointing at hasad. he wrote the great book on isis. that's been the challenge. he's been hustling, as you know, to try and head that off. but the problem was, of course, that the mission of militarily defeating isis and then keeping isis down became sort of two different things. in the one sense of militarily defeating isis was the buy, with and through campaign of operation resolve. keeping isis down involved the creation of internal security forces inside of the wpg areas, the sdf areas. and that was something that seems -- at least from my reading of the situation, set off an alarm bell with turkey and president erdogan specifically. and so this was a gordian knot. now, my last point is -- and it
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led to the announcement of an american withdrawal from syria. however, what that withdrawal was going to look like -- what the pace of it will be and what will replace it is a matter of intense, very subtle debate. between the u.s. and turkey, between the u.s. and the sdf, and then, of course, the various parties who are active inside of syria, because the u.s. and turkey -- i mean, i think the larger issue for me here is as a -- someone looking at this, is -- while understanding turkey's concern about the wpg and the rich relationship to the pkk, it's important to understand a little bit and remember that if the assad regime, the russians and the iranians benefit from this withdrawal, you are going to see a kind of encirclement around you of constellation of forces that is going to probably constrain what turkey does, and not expand its field.
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and this is something i think the u.s. and turkey share. how we get to that, how you head that off, what kind of time line, i don't know. but it's a real challenge, and i hope we can work this out diplomatically and get something moving in the right direction soon. thank you. >> you brought the subject of -- to turkey. let me say a couple words, because coach is late. i think that the insistence for the last several years, turkey has been pressuring the u.s. we have to stop cooperating with the wpg, these are terrorists, they're linked to pkk. they're trying to achieve political autonomy for themselves. they're not in it to fight isis. et cetera. many arguments. and the u.s. often with, you
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know -- acknowledging quite a bit of turkey's concerns. but like andrew said, went for what seemed like a stalling tactic. but it wasn't clear what the u.s. ultimately wanted to do. but in the meantime, wpg kept enlarging its influence and legitimizing itself in the eyes of the west, and most critically, under the umbrella of sort of named kurdish allies, right? there are many different kurdish groups in the region, and turkey is allied with quite a few of them. so for turkey, it wasn't -- the matter wasn't the kurds. it was specifically the wpg and the empowerment of the wpg with the u.s. military support, but which translates to much bigger political support or gives it political legitimacy.
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that was one of the big problems. so turkey undertook so some of the operations on its own to limit where the wpg would go, especially west of euphrates, and has been pushing and was threatening an imminent operation along the border, which was controlled by wpg. so turkey's first and foremost concern there was that the turkish border should be free of isis and wpg control. and interestingly, i think this decision was abrupt, but like we were discussing earlier, trump did this six months ago. he said he wanted to leave. everybody knew he wanted to leave. how and when and where, those were the unanswered questions. in many ways, trump answered it. that's why you find erdogan saying, you -- this is the right
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decision. not right decision about we know everything that we can do on the ground going forward, but i think in the sense of, okay, you put a name to this mission. like, what -- this was an isis mission, as you promised. and isis is no longer holding territory, and we can pull out. so this actually gives some sense to the american presence as general kimmet was discussing. it creates a strong argument for u.s. withdrawal. not to abuse it much further than this. my role. i want to turn to general kimmet. you've been engaged in these types of -- you know, within nato partners, among allies, discussions about in the balkins you were mentioning. how do you think that could -- the u.s. and turkish military is
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right now, when they're sitting down and talking. how -- >> yeah. >> how they could move forward on what kind of withdrawal-related issues, specifically? >> well, that's my most recent article talking about safe zones in syria. yes, i'm doing a shameless plug for the cipher brief. as a pay wall. we'll take anybody. people are saying, what does a safe zone mean? and everybody yet again is starting to have superficial discussions and not the analytics. my view is that the closest approximation of what we're trying to come up with is not operation northern watch. it's not provide comfort. it's the zone of separation that we established as part of the dayton peace accord, which set up a buffer between the -- between the serbian forces and the boss knniak forces.
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it would seem to me that is what they are trying to do. i think in theory, what we're trying to do is recognize a legitimate national security concerns of turkey and at the same time, trying to prevent the accidental conflict or intentional conflict between turkish forces and the wpg. accepting both those responsibilities, the united states is trying to be the broker of an outcome where there is a separation. wpg is protected. turkey's legitimate national security concerns are honored. what does that look like 20 miles into the -- in from the border with turkey would be considered a buffer zone, perhaps, again. my speculation. no forces would be allowed in, no effects of those forces would be allowed in. aircraft, artillery, so on and so forth. none of the effects inside the
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buffer zone would be allowed out. you would need to get a robust force in there to be a peace enforcement operation. probably would not be from either side. i can't imagine that it would be helpful to have either the turkish forces running joint patrols in there or the wpg forces claiming they must go see their mother and daughter, hence they should be allowed in there. so you bring in a monitoring force with the purpose of monitoring the agreement. the real hard questions then become, what is the mandate of that enforcement force? whether it's u.n., whether it's nato, whether it's osce. are they there just to monitor and report, are they there to keep the peace? are they there to impose a peace? with that, what course will be the rules and engagement? will they be able to use lethal force? what are the military aspects they could bring in? most importantly, what do you do
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about the violations inside that buffer zone in these are all the technical issues. but i think at the end, what we're trying to do is set up a comfortable space between the wpg forces and the turkish forces so that we can focus more on, as andrew said, defeating isis than arbitrating a dispute between two organizations. >> okay. hasan, you said that, you know, eastern part of euphrates wasn't exactly ready for a withdrawal. based on what the general was saying, what the u.s. might be trying to achieve going forward, like what -- when would it be ready for a withdrawal, from your perspective? >> so i think a perfect example to give, and it's a recent example. so anyone can understand.
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is kirkuk, october 2017. so almost a year-and-a-half ago. when the city or the province shifted hands from the peshmerga, the kurds. the kurds for a long time took over and secured, especially since 2014, when isis tried to take over -- advanced towards the kurdish areas. when they took over, they stabilized the area. and then what happened was, abadi government wanted this kirkuk back. and you remember, in october 2017, that's when the city shifted hands, and the shia militias from baghdad and security forces went in and took over. what happened was, since then, isis recovered. that's -- you can see the data. you can read the news. that's a perfect example of what happens when a city shifts hands
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without a plan, without a very thought out strategy of who takes over, and how. and once new security forces -- even though they are effective, these forces secured to kirkuk -- you know, to create, for example -- if they skured anbar, some of these areas and elsewhere. when one force leaves, another force comes, that creates a vacuum. but also creates a new opportunity for isis and others. because you might have a lot of the population who like the newcomers. they maybe develop affinity to them or a foe, whatever you want to call it. and newcomers come in, maybe a few dozen don't like the newcomers, and that opens doors for isis. that's what happened. this is a concrete example of what happens when you just leave or when a new force comes in. and i think the attack -- >> hasan, i'm sorry to interrupt.
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>> yes. >> but here we're talking about going from a sub state actor to a state actor. >> yeah. >> just -- >> so i'll continue. so membij, obviously so i'll continue. the united states paid so much attention to, even isis, if you read the newspaper on thursday about the attack and they explain how the city is widely, presence on the ground, cctv, the whole city is surrounded and american patrols come in every now and then. they know. they tried several times to attack the u.s. and failed. but this time worked out for them. that tells you when the city, even though it's being -- again,
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u.s. has paid so much attention to isis still attacked and that tells you something. isis will continue to try to recover in these areas. they have sleeper cells. imagine if a new member comes in and takes over for the sdf. it would create some vacuum, open new opportunities for isis because if the regime comes in and takes over membage, say a few members were satisfied with sdf, content with how they did things or at least got usd to t when the regime comes in, that's a whole different ball game for a lot of people in eastern syria. just one -- another concrete example of that evidence is that when the regime liberated, quote, unquote, the eastern -- the western part of the euphrates river, so these are
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the cities of dezor, also october of 2017 when they announced the victory there, still not a single person -- and this is obviously exaggeration, went back to these areas. these areas are empty towns, soon destroyed. nobody comes in. that tells you how popular the regime is in these areas and even if people are comfortable coming back, there's nothing there to come back to. it's a success story, we have to admit. i have to come back to the initial point in the first place in the beginning, which is the whole policy was flawed. so return to violence would be inevitable. i understand that argument but i also understand the practicality
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of shift in hands. in conclusion i want to say in order to avoid the -- what happened in kirkuk, it has to be dealt with, ppk, ypg, has to leave town because it's an arab city at the end of the day. forget the regime, turkey, erdogan. it's predominantly arab area. it has to be addressed demographically, reflected in that sense. but it has to be done peacefully without a new force coming in, taking over for the sdf. now how that will happen, that's the big question. >> so can you tie that to when it would be ready for a withdrawal? do you mean these attacks have to -- some sort of deal has to be found first and then the u.s. should -- >> i have an exit strategy i could offer for the united states. >> yeah, yeah, yeah. >> so the exit strategy, in my
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opinion is these areas have to eventually return to the syrian state. they have to be controlled by damascus but there has to be an interim solution. that's why to tie it to my original, you know, remarks, it has to be a peaceful handover through political settlement. all these areas should not return to the regime for violence. should not return to turkey, say, through violence. it has to be some sort of political settlement. that's why it was wrong fundamentally for trump to say we're leaving syria after all what has been done. this is not about iran. this is not about fighting isis. this is about making gains, securing and stabilizing this region and then deciding where this region will go next. this is a post-conflict situation not a conflict situation. what i mean by that is the conflict has already been addressed there.
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what you need to do is sustain that gain that you made in eastern syria. one-third of syria. that's a huge chunk of seara. how to sustain the gain there. you do it by stabilizing these areas. maybe not necessarily by american taxpayers, because there are other countries willing to contribute. turkey would be one. but it has to be done by -- in a way that addresses their political grievances. and that goes back also to the original plan by the obama administration to somehow ignore turkish priorities, not read history and somehow decide they're going to go there and use these bunch of fighters who seem to be great warriors and fight isis and get out of there. that's not how it works. >> thank you, hassan. andrew, my last question to the panel and then we'll turn to the questions from the audience. do you see going forward ambassador jim jeffries syria
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mission as more like hassan is suggesting, focusing on politics more than the withdrawal and how that could play out? >> yes, i do. now, of course, he's dual head. the isis czar as we say and also the special envoy for syrian engagement. in a way those two portfolios have been merged. and, you know -- and i think this is where i think you're going to see part of his efforts with joel rayburn, getting people back to the table in geneva and seeing if you could come up with a negotiated settlement. this is where it gets very tricky because the de-escalation agreements which have been put into place because of the regime was so militarily weakened, a lot of times when there's progress in these zones, the regime goes off elsewhere and
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goes on the offensive with the russians and iranians. that's the real issue here. we were with the u.s. stayed for a little longer, i think we would have been in a time when things would have balanced out a little more with the de-escalation agreement in the northwest. that could have got talks going. i'm not terribly confident at all that you're going to have an easy outcome to those talks but we'll see. so i think there's that. the overall fight against isis, i mean, i think hassan put his finger on it. there's the military aspect. the nature of the organization itself means that you have its resurgence in a different form and this is an inevitable part of these counterterrorism activities unfortunately. that's going to be a real challenge. how do you do that? and whose problem is that going
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to be? if you have american troops there, they're exposed to attacks. that's a liability, potentially a political liability and a very serious one for u.s. troops, of course. if you have the -- this is hassan's excellent point, right? the problem is that you have the assad regime poised to cross the river and go into some of these areas. they're not the most popular people in the world in case you haven't figured that out by now. after you use repeatedly strategic weapons against your own people, your entire stockpile including surface-to-surface missiles as well and you end up in this situation and you go back into these areas, i think a lot of people out of eastern syria realize that governance under that regime, as is, is something as unpalatable and is going to be hard to manage.
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also secret of syrian engagement, which i used to do before the war broke out, any time that regime feels confident and relaxed, it becomes more difficult to deal with. it's a paradox. unfortunately, this could be the situation we're look at here as we go to talks in geneva. >> thank you, andrew. let me turn to the audience. one here. let me collect three right ther there. >> laurie millroy, kurdistan. i don't understand what this proposal is about. there's going to be the safe zone which is the 20-mile buffer, but what about the rest of eastern syria? does that just remain under sdf control? what is your understanding? and what is your understanding of that? and then is turkey -- if it doesn't remain under sdf
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control, is turkey capable of even controlling that area? who is going to be in charge of it? >> go ahead. >> right there in the third row. >> morning. thank you so much. i need your idea about what is going on in adlib with new events with sdf and when we have kind of the salvation government in our days, is there any compromise between sdf and other state actors? thank you. >> okay. the question was about adlib. >> and one more. >> let me bring your attention
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to. [ inaudible ] to get your take on. one he says turkey can't operate hundreds of miles deep into syria without u.s. major support. so if turkey is to take control of the situation, does that mean u.s. still needs to stay? two, he also makes the point that as turkey expands into its region in syria, you see more partners get close to damascus and he gives the idea of them opening their embassies. and areas would precipitate chaos and environment for extremists to thrive. my question for you is hassan made the point of kirkuk that when it changed hands, isis re-emerged and thrived and then qatar, you pushed back and said wait a minute, we're going to take this from a nonstate actor to a state actor hand.
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well, is that true? because if you look, turkey is working with proxies that are not necessarily part of the state actor. thank you. >> why don't i turn to you about the safe zone and capabilities of turkey? i guess i would have to respond a bit but do you want to take that? >> well, i haven't read brett's article. his positions on this are well known. i don't think anything in the safe zone initiative is considered considering having turkey go hundreds of miles. is that what you said? yeah. lo look, let's take this one step at a time. safe zone initiative probably will end up being an exclusion zone for both turkish forces and ypg forces and it could well be an exclusion zone for american
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forces as well. i don't know. i haven't seen the broad construct and nobody else has. i think there's more security around that decision than there is around the mueller investigation. let's see what comes out. >> i read the article and, obviously, a big champion of the ypg, gave some pictures that caused problems between the two nato allies. the argument is based on the press reports a couple of weeks ago about turkey asking the u.s. to give a lot of military support to be able to hold this territory but i think it is a bit misrepresented in the sense that these are discussions about how to help u.s. withdrawal. right? so the air zone, for instance,
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like the flight of the u.s. is controlling some -- i don't want to get into the general's expertise area but what do they call it? >> euprates. if a russian plane flies, it dies. that's it. close enough? >> yes. u.s., for instance, won't leave the air base and then where ypg exactly goes to reassure turkey's security along the border. but i think you can represent this -- these kind of discussions as saying oh, turkey is requiring too much and we need to actually stay even more. i don't think that's true. and that's the pushback by people who are advocating for continued u.s. presence and continued u.s. relationship ypg
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but the political decision has been made about the withdrawal. and you're right, turkey does work with opposition forces. it considers them opposition forces. so it's not only state actor that's entering but they are in engagement with some state actor. turkey is the one with the forces on the ground. one more thing about capability. everybody said turkey can't enter. it doesn't have the capacity. it won't go in, et cetera.
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i think it's underestimated turkey's capability and willingness to go after what it sees as the syrian branch. it has recommended, suggested those as well. i made a flippant comment that i don't want to see in "the washington point." my point was flippant, obviously, so i would like to withdraw it. >> good point.
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hassan? >> i'm reminded of when i think of this u.s. policy in syria, saying that stingy person ends up eating his lunch twice. the american presence in syria is the least expensive one. we'll come back to fight another complicated war. are they going to provide u.s. air force, kind of air cover for the syrian regime when it takes over areas like azor and raqqa? i'll answer your question. i think those are the soft targets of the seyrian regime ad russia. you might probably see chechens going to raqqa if it ends up to be a negotiated settlement. turkey will be in the north, take over the areas.
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i also want to concede i'm guilty of what you said, about turkey's willingness to go into syria. i didn't expect that turkey would go into euphrates, for example, because it would be long, durable insurgency there but they seem to be more willing. we tend to forget the history. in 1998, turks wanted to invade syria. even though it was stronger they had to basically bow and say okay, whatever you want regarding the ypg. so this is -- you know, i think some american officials underestimate how serious this is. this is worse than how the israeli/hezbollah or how americans see al qaeda, especially in the region. not here, obviously.
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about the north also, speak about the northwest, the situation recently with taking over this area and consolidating control of the area, both makes things easier and more difficult. easier in the sense that this is now an easier argument for russia to say who is in control of that area? it's al qaeda affiliate and we need to clear the air. a lot of people agree that that area has to be cleared of al qaeda. it's no longer them provide iin way out. so you support these forces. they take on nosra and then you talk with them at some point. that's no longer the situation. so it's a lot easier for the regime to make the argument now but it's harder because now the choice is clear. it's binary. either the regime goes back to
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idlib or hirshan stays there. a lot of people would be reluctant, at least for now, to see that change of hands in idlib. >> andrew, did you want to address any of this? >> no. >> let me get more questions from the back. there's a journalist there all the way in the back as well. we have seen safe zones. nearly all of them fail. actually, they are kind of prone to failure. and we are talking about syria, where so many different group the were existentially
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threatening each other are in the same area and we're trying to implement a safe zone which you suggested maybe an international organizational kind of coordination which will lead the safe zone. without a crucial or without a substantial force taking control of that territory how could it be possible to create a safe zone in that dangerous and complicated area? that's my first question. the other one, hassan talked about the isis sympathizers inside the syrian kind of population right now. how could you prevent another kind of insurgency or another kind of terror threat inside syria if you are kind of encouraging a group to take over
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a territory? like, for example, ypg, or if you are bringing in shia militias and encourage them to overtake other territories and let the rest of the population stay, discriminate or kind of deprive from certain powers. >> i think this is enough if you don't mind. >> there is a question all the way in the back. thank you. >> hi. this is mehmet from trt world. in the last year we've seen drastic changes in the u.s. and turkey relations. maybe it's causation, maybe it's correlation. i won't go there. but is there a chance in 2020 election cycle will hamper this coordination? and what happens if that becomes a reality? >> okay.
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so we are again on safe zone. do you want to address it? >> sure. i'll take it. every safe zone, humanitarian safe zone, zone of separation, humanitarian corridor, all of them are fraught with difficulties. i think there's a little bit of difference in this particular initiative because the u.s. is going to end up being the guaranteer since they have good relationships with both the turkish military and the ypg. i think that it has a good prospect of being successful. i would not want to see u.s. forces in there doing the monitoring and enforcing. in both cases we would be monitoring our allies and we would be enforcing penalties against our allies. so, as i said concluding my article, it may not work. it may work. but just because it hasn't worked elsewhere is not justification for not attempting it here. because i think in this case,
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conditions are such that it probably has a higher prospect. if you take a hard look at the zone of separation, which eventually became the interentity boundary line during the time it was up, there were no violations of it. there were no casualties associated with it. and it actually was a good transition to setting up what are now not known as borders but interentity boundary line between the two federation locations. if you have a better idea, we would be more than happy to hear it. >> certain deconflicting zones have worked, at least to some extent. wouldn't you say, andrew? >> they worked for a time. they did not work to -- it wasn't a safe zone. they were deescalation zones. when you start hearing words like this, you get into technicalities that show you
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that it's a transitory nature of the zone. in the case of the outside regime in the southwest. and we could see that. i think it's likely we will see that. however, other sources are stretched pretty thin. so we will have to see. it will buy some time. i don't think it will solve the problem. we'll have to wait and see what the moves of the -- political moves are of the ypg with the regime in the coming days. and that's the thing to really watch. >> do you think that could hamper what the general was talking about, how the u.s. has weight with the sdf? >> yeah. i mean, the syrian regime's objective is to get the united states out of syria post haste because we have the ability militarily and politically and so on to seriously constrain
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them. not to feed them, not even push out iranian forces without a really concerted long-term effort but we are -- we have the ability to turn things around. and this is -- we've seen u.s. military activity against a shia militia within the last year that are indicative of this. they're very aware of that. >> uh-huh. >> i would simply say, quick response, i don't think that there's any comparison between the deescalation zones in syria where you actually have warring parties fighting prior to that, both required to pull out that have de-escalation zone. >> it wasn't the same. >> i don't think that's what we're contemplating here. >> that's right. hassan? >> about isis, right? >> iranians. >> yes. >> i saw that firsthand where
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people, even supporters of the syrian regime, when they started to see iranians going into these areas and attack, they became worried because iran and shia militias -- not shia militia -- iran's always been seen suspiciously because there were attempts to shia-tize areas and targeted specific tribes who traced their origins to the prophet's family and target those people to say your origins are shia, so try to shia-tize these areas. there's all that extra sensitive dynamic when it comes to shia militias. so once we see shia militias there it's a problem. also the kurds, it was kind of critical of allowing the ypg to expand in these areas. and i might see problems with
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the shift, reversing that now for practical reasons but it's also a very sensitive issue for these people to be controlled by out-of-towners. people from out of town. they're not from there. this is an extra sensitive issue for these people. one final point i want to make about isis. a lot of people don't know, even me, like obviously people who follow this closely, how isis is today, where it's going next. and my assistant is -- i think it would be another year or two, probably two years for us to really know -- for us to really see the full potential of isis, the potential that it gained over the past three years or four years where it took over the areas and managed people and so on and so forth. for now they are on the run. they are trying hard to regroup. it's not working for them. they're calling on sleeper cells to wake up and so on and so forth. it's hard. they have the numbers, the
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circumstances, conditions on the ground to recover. i think it will take them another two years. read the iraq history, for example, how they did that before. i think that's why leaving now is just the worst thing that anyone could do, but one thing i learned living in washington over the past three years is it's a hopeless city so they never do the right thing. even though it is clear what is the right thing. >> until they do the right thing, right? >> unless they have to go back. >> andrew, the question about the 2020, this syria withdrawal decision created some interesting dynamics. people who were opponents of getting involved more in syria for such a long time were the ones who opposed trump's decision. actually general mentioned it at the beginning, became so partisan. and congress is asserting itself
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more, at least the house, going forward. do you see that sort of playing out on the syria scene in terms of politics of it in this town? >> i think it's likely that this will play a role in the foreign policy aspects of the 2020 campaign. now, i caveat that by saying i think the main battleground for the u.s. between president trump and the democratic opposition is primarily domestic in nature and much more oriented towards things here at home. and it is interesting. so, i mean, i think the main -- it seemed to me that the main criticism coming -- that was coming from the democratic side was about to pull out in general. i think that gets into the superficial tweet aspect of things because it has to be condensed.
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but many people in the democratic party political establishment wanted there to be a deal between the ypg and the regime at the end of this. including brett mcgirk as far as i know. i've been in settings where he talked about the fabric of syrian society to go back again, to use a metaphor. i think it was the pace, the timing of the decision, which was a concern to them. and that's why i think you see elizabeth warren coming out from a different part of the political spectrum saying, oh, yeah, i think it's great to pull out of syria. again, this becomes a political hot potato, so to speak, because meanwhile, it's likely, unfortunately, that we're going to have more of these attacks by isis, because they want -- they're desperate, they're being militarily defeated. these sleeper cell have the ability to carry out these attacks and you get a lot of, as we say, bang for the buck. so, i think it will be an issue in 2020.
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but unless there's -- unless it's tied to something much larger, i don't see it being the issue for the 2020 election. >> i would just comment. i don't even think it's going to come up. first of all, foreign policy is rarely an issue in presidential elections. i think if they do talk foreign policy, it will be much larger issues, china, rule of russia, reset buttons, so on and so forth. and, canidally, the democrats completely agree with president trump on the issue of foreign intervention in the first place. president trump is -- one of his rationale for doing this is he said let's get out of dumb wars in the middle east. that's the first thing president obama said. iraq was a dumb war. we need to focus on afghanistan. no, unfortunately, i don't think it will be an issue at all because actually, president trump is using the democratic bullet points on the issue of foreign interventions. so, don't expect sear camera to be mentioned in 2020.
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>> he criticized obama for leaving in 2011, right? >> he will say whatever is necessary to make his argument. iraq. >> yeah. >> do we have more questions in the back? right. okay. one. [ inaudible ] >> there is no -- i know -- yeah. go ahead. go ahead. >> yes. regarding the question about the area south of 20 miles. >> safe zone. >> who is going to control the safe zone. my question is last year some representatives from other parts of syria and washington, d.c. and held meetings here at the state department. lately -- last week also, they are now saying they held some other meetings with turkish officials, which is the syrian,
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kurdish national council. could we say after the decision of the withdrawal of syria there might be some kind of new deal between the united states and turkey for finding another alternative for ypg and sdf, taking a look for other parties there? thank you. >> can i address a little bit just from the turkish perspective? like there should be these areas in the north should be repopulated with people who originally left from there. so any kind of sort of engineering of populations that happened over the past several years have to be reset. from turkish perspective. because they feel like ypg throw out a lot of the -- actually kurdish actors but also a lot of the civilians and the reason a lot of arabs were able to get on to the project of sdf was because of the turkey/u.s. support. so if you create another power
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center, they believe some of those arabs will actually be coming back. they can be -- get adjusted or attached to the new kind of local administrations that would be empowered by turkey and pro sort of -- but i think repopulation of those areas is a critical issue. they don't want to make kurdish cities arab or vice versa. they want those original sort of whatever the percentages to be kind of reset. you can have a kurdish majority town run by local councils run by the kurds but not controlled by ypg and indirectly pkk. that's their beef. did anybody want to address this? okay. then last, i'll give you the last closing remarks.
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>> my question wasn't addressed. >> and what was your question again? >> beyond the safe zone, who is going to control the safe zone and that entire territory below, let's say 20 miles? >> first of all, was that your question? >> yes. >> so who is going to control the safe zone? >> below the safe zone. >> so raqqa. >> sure. i think it was mentioned here that there's probably going to be an alignment between the ypg and the syrian government, but i don't think it's going to be the united states' policy to either set the rules for that area, nor try to impose a solution on that area. so far that i've heard. >> i think it's a major goal of the united states for the regime and the iranians and russians not to take over that area. how you achieve that because, of
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course, you're dealing with -- the likelihood is not necessarily -- the short term it's not a military offensive by the regime necessarily but could be a political detante but we have to wait and see what they work out. the regime, again when it's engaged feels confident and is even more rigid in negotiations than when it's under pressure. so i would suspect they're going to want quite a bit from the ypg, and that will give up their ideas of autonomy or something thereof. and then, of course, the regime can also cut deals with the settled tribes in other sunni forces and arab groupings and we see they already do this -- there was something just yesterday, where the regime --
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we can expect more, a subset of this conflict to watch. >> i would make two comments. number one, we've also not brought in the issue of iraqi forces. prime minister has made an open offer because of his understanding that if this place does, in fact -- isis does, in fact, begin to expand again it will come into iraq. second, i think we need to measure inside the city about where this president stands with regard to foreign interventions. he is looking to do less rather than more and i suspect that we will come to an understanding of what happens in that area but i think it will be subject to a lot of debate before a final decision is made. in the mind of this president, he would probably sit here and say why is that our problem?
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>> hassan, raqqa is arab majority city. >> that's correct. >> how is it being run now and what do you expect the withdrawal decision could impact? >> so if the maps that we saw online of the safe zone or whatever security zone, whatever turkey is trying to establish in the north, if that's what's going to happen then i think that's turkey's way of saying the ypg will not exist in the whole of syria. that's really the kurdish areas in the north. beyond that area, there are no kurdish majority areas or not many. there are some, obviously, some kurds there. so that leaves the question of who is going to take over if it's not turkey or the ypg from, you know, raqqa and the resort. it seems like -- it depends. realistically it seems like the
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regime is eventually going to go there. maybe it's not going to be any time soon. the sdf seems to be an alternative at least in damascus for the russians to take over. sponsorship so the russians would be overseeing the sdf or whatever the sdf is in raqqa and that, in theory -- obviously i'm not talking about ideas, scenarios but these are scenarios -- one of the horrible scenarios being explored. that solves one problem, which is that iraq -- iraqi borders, the coordination between the iraqis and syrian regime or the americans when they were there with the iraqis or shia militias in some areas that complicates the situation because isis moves in areas where both sides who otherwise would not cooperate with each other have to somehow find a mechanism to talk about targeting who is who. so if russia goes back to this
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area that addresses the problem of the security architecture, becomes more meaningful in that sense. i think it's a difficult question to answer because is your question about who is going to be there? because we don't know. there is no clarity. or who should be there? we could go through a whole organic list of options. the best option seems to be from all the existing options that russia will take over rather than iran and the regime in those areas. >> i want to give you each one minute for final comments. andrew? >> hmm. i would say that it's important to get back to the original theme of this talk, to not focus on what the film or tv version is of the withdrawal or even a fight against terrorism or the
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outcome of this war. i think it's very important just to keep your eye, as much as possible, on these -- the way the syrian war is settling out and the way that the different parties are reacting to the outcome of that settlement. and we're far from a settlement, i think. there are a lot of different ways this can go. it could go sideways in a way. and we could end up in a situation where we get pulled into something in the future, but this time with a lot less than we have at the moment. i think it's very important to be as rational as we possibly can at this critical time. and i know it's hard, especially these days, but i think we have to try. >> thank you, andrew. hassan? >> i sort of said much of what i want to say but i think the question is, i think the worst thing to watch -- the worst thing that could happen in the next two years is not isis.
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it's really how the syrian conflict will play out. and if all these forces agree on something, then maybe we have the hope that there's some peaceful, orderly transition of these areas, handover to some force or another. but that seems to be, to me -- i'm convinced that that will leave gaps and probably speed up the recovery of isis from my assessment of two years from now into a year from now, becoming more destructive. again, look at iraq and what happened in iraq. analysts, if you talk to most analysts of iraq over -- if you talk to them over the past two, three years, they didn't expect iraq to trourn violenreturn to isis to recover because of the sheer number fighting isis, the
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paramilitary. iraq had the real momentum against isis but that momentum was challenged by this local -- ignoring local dynamics in the north of iraq but also the shift of hands from one force to another in kirkuk that opened so much potential for isis in those areas and i fear -- this is the moment, really similar and comparable that happened in 2017 in iraq and will be worse in syria, because syria is still -- again, the pieces are fragile and pieces are still scattered around and there's so many stakeholders vying for one thing or another. >> thank you, hassan. i hope we don't have another panel in two years about isis. >> you will. you will. >> but we'll watch that. thank you. general? >> first of all i want to thank not only you for putting this together, and my other co-panelists but candidly, i think we've had a deeper debate inside this room from some very
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good questions that have been asked that you don't hear inside this town. well done to you all as well. second, just a counterpoint. i spent most of my time in iraq working over there. i've got a very strong connections with both federal police, border police, ministry of defense. and if -- all i would say is the iraqi military and security force believe they have isis under control around kirkuk. they would rather have a destabilized area with a minor presence of isis and the kirkuk oil fields than the other option, which is one of the reasons that after the referendum they went back in. i say that because i don't think that even if we saw a re-emergence of isis, that level inside syria after america leaves, that's manageable. that's in 25 different countries. that's not the apocalypse.
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isis is degrade to the point now where it's no longer an existential threat to the you state. they're not going to get on the airplane and fly into -- but they may. but the mission of the united states, when it went back into iraq, was to assist the iraqis to push back not only this force that was putting our country at risk, at the gates of baghdad. i was there. they haven't pushed back. there is a small prns of terrorism but srnl not large military forces which they had before. they seem to have that managed. iraq it defeated. they have what they believe to be a manageable level of isis there. and i think -- again, i'm not promoting. i'm explaining as an analyst should do this president feels that, okay, isis is down to the point where it should no longer
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be the responsibility of the mile an hours to do it. if it's important to the region, let the region handle it. the last thing i would say, there are a lot of mixed messages. where you may hear one thing from john bolton, you might hear another thing from mike pompeo. and you may hear another thing from the president. i can tell you right now that military, as they remind everybody, they take orders from the president and that great quip in the washington post from an unnamed defense official says we don't take orders from john bolton. there's a clarity of understanding by u.s. forces on the ground and coalition forces on the ground about which decision has been made so i would listen very carefully to
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what the president says and don't listen to the other voices that sound contradictory. standard u.s. policy. as the old saying goes, we only have one president at a time and he sets the policy. i don't say that as an advocate. i say that as an analyst. >> since 2014, this has been. other than figure everything out, that's going to be difficult. and i think it is definitely full of all the risks and dangers that our panelists mentioned.
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as this panel really shows a lot of things will have to be figured out going forward of the thank you all for spending this morning with us. we appreciate you being here. please join me in congratulating the panel. >> thank you for having us. the government shutdown is now in its 32nd day, longer than any previous shutdown. the standoff continues over border wall funding. the senate announced they would vote this week on president trump's proposal to end the government shutdown and the democratic alternative. both need 60 to move forward. right now those votes are scheduled for 2:30 eastern on thursday. happening now on c-span 2, the
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house rules committee is meeting to consider a spending bill that provides funding to reopen a number of federal agencies and fund them through the remainder of the fiscal year that ends september 30th. that's live over on c-span 2. the reverend al sharpton and national action network hosted its annual martin luther king day breakfast. martin luther king iii, muriel bowser and firmer new york city mayor michael bloomberg, named as a potential 2020 presidential candidate. this is almost two hours.


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