We all condemn what President Erdogan of Turkey has done

trump, turkey, esper, syria, iran, daesh

In an interview to CNN, US Secretary of Defense defends Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.



By Christiane Amanpour

Published: Wed 23 Oct 2019, 10:11 PM

Last updated: Thu 24 Oct 2019, 12:17 AM

President Trump doesn't anticipate your troops staying in Syria. So where will they be?

So as you know, we're conducting a phased withdrawal, deliberate phased withdrawal from northeast Syria. It began with what we call phase one, which was in the immediate zone of attack. Now we're under phase two, which is from the northeast corridor if you will, and then eventually we'll have other phases that will draw other forces out. We will temporarily re-position in Iraq, pursuant to bringing troops home. And so it's just one part of the continuing phase, but eventually those troops are going to come home.
So they are coming home?

They will come home.
None will stay in Syria?

Well right now the president has authorized that some would stay in the southern part of Syria, in Al-Tanf, and we're looking maybe keeping some additional forces to ensure that we deny Daesh and others access to these key oil fields also in the middle part of the country, if you will. But that needs to be worked out in time, the president hasn't approved that yet, I need to take him options sometime very soon, but the bulk of force would reposition in Iraq and then eventually go home.
So none of this is clear, first and foremost, and those who might stay might be away from that border, away from the bulk of the Daesh trouble. And securing fields? From who?

Well I don't talk about securing oil fields as much as I talk about denying Daesh access to the oil fields so that they can't have revenue to continue their bad behavior. And with regard to, you know, the deployment, what I try and do, what my aim is to keep my options open, really keep the president's options open, so that as events change on the ground, whether it's up in northeast Syria or other parts, that we have flexibility to respond to the president's direction.
How are you going to have the flexibility to respond to a resurgence of Daesh?
Well let's look at the facts on the ground. Based on the intelligence we have, the reporting we have, of the 11,000 or so detainees that were in prisons in northeast Syria, we've only had reports of a little bit more than a hundred that have escaped. The SDF - and we remain in contact with them - are maintaining guards over top of the prisons they have control of. So right now, we have not seen this big prison break that we all expected. So that's the good news piece. And then with regard to other part, I'll be meeting with my allies, the United States allies in Brussels in the coming days. We're going to have a specific session on, what do we do with the defeat ISIS campaign now that it's in a new phase to ensure that we can maintain pressure on Daesh so it doesn't re-surge.
Golly, Secretary, in a new phase? Some would say you have, I don't know, wantonly or willingly ended the success on Daesh.
Well the success --
It's not really a new phase, I mean, the metrics are not about territory, are they? They're about resurgence, regrouping, the ability to do so.

I wouldn't classify it as a resurgence, I had not. What I would say is this: keep in mind why we partnered with the SDF originally going back to 2014: it was to defeat Daesh. And we ended up destroying the physical caliphate of Daesh as of March this year, and the task then is to make sure we maintain the enduring defeat, and part and parcel of that is making sure that local security etc can handle that. So yes, we are in a new phase of the defeat Daesh campaign, it's to maintain that defeat, maintain that destruction.
I mean, as you know, it's not just about prisons, it's about fighting, and the Kurds were your real on-the-ground fighting force. Tragically, about eight American lives were lost during the fight for Daesh, but more than 11,000 Kurdish lives were lost.

That's right, and we were their enablers and we were their air force. So we had a mutual interest: the mutual interest was destroying the physical caliphate of Daesh.

I'm having trouble with word enduring, but let me ask you first: you say you're going to Nato to talk to allies. Allies are actually quite shocked, and I'd be interested to know what they say to you, because those were your allies, the Kurdish forces on the ground, and they right now feel utterly betrayed. You've seen this terrible tragic pictures, I'm sure no secretary of defense wants to see their allies throwing rocks and rotten fruit at retreating American forces, calling them liars and saying that they betrayed them. I wonder what your - how do you feel when you see that?

Well here's what the allies have said, publicly and privately:

. We all opposed it, that is, this irresponsible incursion into northern Syria that has upset, upset what had been happening on the ground successfully. And so everybody opposes that, we're going to talk specifically about that as well in the context of what's next with regard to defeat Daesh. So that's I think where we'll begin, at the point right there.
I guess I'm asking you how does it feel to see your allies react to what they believe is a betrayal? Throwing rotten fruit at you. How do you react to Russian forces - and we have pictures of them - marching nonchalantly into the abandoned US bases?

So I think you have to go back to the original reason why we partnered with the SDF - this is going back to the Obama administration, carried through into the Trump administration: the defeat of Daesh, which resulted in physical destruction of the caliphate. We didn't sign up to fight a war to defend the Kurds against a longstanding NATO ally, and we certainly didn't sign up to help them establish an autonomous Kurdish state. That was the conflict that the Turks put us in between: an advancing Turkish army opposed by the Kurds, or at least elements of the SDF, and at the same time, you had Syrian and Russian forces moving in. That's not the position which we want our young American service members to be in.
There's so many bits and bobs to ask you about, but first and foremost, the 120 hour cessation of hostilities - not a ceasefire, obviously, as you know better than I do, it's not a formal ceasefire, it's a pause. And the President of Turkey has said that they're going to wait and see. And he has actually said, furthermore, 'We will start where we left off, and continue to crush the terrorist head.' Now he's talking about the SDF, the Kurds. What do you make of that?

Well again, we would call upon President Erdogan to be more responsible, to act prudently. What we've seen, the reporting I've heard in the last, at least, previous 24 hours, is that the ceasefire is largely holding. There is some skirmishing here and there. But we...

Well, it's a professional question: were you on the phone call that President Trump had with President Erdogan? Did you know what was being discussed between the two presidents in the hours before the Turks launched their offensive into Syria?

Sure, no, I listened into the phone call, of course, but my experience with that.
So you knew what was being discussed?

Yes, absolutely. But my experience goes back to when I first came into office in late July, so two months or so into it. Probably the one issue that dominated my time more than anything else was working with my counterpart, the defense minister of Turkey, trying to build this safe zone, this security mechanism by which we'd do joint patrolling with the Turks to keep a buffer zone between Turkey and the SDF. And we thought it was going well. We had established a joint operation center in southern Turkey, we were doing ground patrols and air patrols. We got the SDF to agree to back up a little bit. And I guess at some point, the Turks decided it's not moving fast enough, it's not comprehensive enough, whatever the case may be, but we saw the pressure building, despite our efforts, and...
The pressure from the Turks?

From the Turks. And it was just days before, when President Erdogan called President Trump, that the minister told me, 'Look, we're going to be coming across, we'll give you a heads up.' And when Erdogan spoke to President Trump, he confirmed that and notified us that was his intent.
So, Mitt Romney, as you know, senator from Utah: 'What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain on the annals of American history. Was there no chance for diplomacy?' he asks. 'Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey!' he said. And you've just said pretty much that that's exactly what happened!

Well look, Turkey is a longstanding NATO ally. We're not going to go to war against a NATO ally and certainly not over, across, with regard to a border that we didn't sign up to defend in the first place. You've got to go back to our primary mission: defeat ISIS.

So you have just said that you were doing a good job. And most people thought you were doing a good job.

Everybody except the Turks thought we were doing a good job.

Right, bizarrely, because you were keeping Daesh down, and you were a buffer force there, correct?

Well no, I meant in the context of the Turkish government did not feel we were doing a good enough or fast enough job with regard to building the safe zone.

Fine. The president has said - and of course, it's within his right and the right of any president - to want to end, quote, 'endless wars' and bring troops home. But you know, again, much better than I do that America is full of buffer troops in many parts of the world where wars have ended in order to prevent a re-emergence of hostilities, whether it's between North and South Korea, whether it's in Europe and now with a revanchist Russia, whether it's elsewhere in the Middle East.

And that's one of the challenges I face as Secretary of Defense, trying to implement our new national defense strategy, is: how do I re-position our forces to deal with the threats of the coming decades, which is China, number one, and Russia, number two. As I look around the globe, I see our forces tied down in multiple locations. I mean, if you step back, you'd see American forces easily in 80, 90 countries around the world. You see we have legal obligations to help defend dozens of countries, and we will honor those. But what I have to do is think about how do I reallocate, re-position my forces, and in some cases substitute them with other countries, so that I can free them up to deal with China, again, our principle strategic competitor in the next few decades.

Well the global fight against Daesh, though, is not just isolated to Syria, right? We are fighting Daesh on a day-by-day basis, everywhere from northern Africa all the way into Afghanistan, where I just was two days ago, getting an update on our fight there. Daesh is throughout the region, and our goal is to stay on top of that so that they don't re-emerge or re-surge in a way that could threaten the homeland.

Exactly. My question is how, I mean, you've already quietly removed several thousand US troops from Afghanistan, there's still no peace there, no deal with the Taleban. You're here in Saudi Arabia and we're here in this hangar, and you've got the patriot batteries and you've got several thousand troops redeploying here. Actually, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked the president, 'Well, you say you want to bring them home. Is Saudi Arabia home, Mr President?' I don't know, is Saudi Arabia home?

Well look, very different situations. In this case, what we're trying to do is prevent a regional conflagration initiated by Iran against many of our longstanding partners. We've been partners with Saudi Arabia now for 70 plus years. As you said, my war was the Gulf War, I spent 7, 8 months in this country helping defend in Desert Shield, Desert Storm. Right? So what we're here, why I deployed additional forces here was to help enable the defense of Saudi Arabia, deter the Iranians, because what we don't want is the Iranians taking actions that ends up in an escalatory fight, that we end up with another regional conflict. Nobody wants that. So I think the difference is, if you're trying to make them, between the deployment of additional forces to Saudi Arabia, and the withdrawal of some forces out of northeast Syria, two different things, very dramatically different.
Daesh have territory now. We see the Russians walking into...

The Russians had a lot of territory in Syria...beginning as early as 2012, 2013, whenever they moved in.

What about the Iranians?

Well look, this is the point: the key thing with the Iranians is we, because of the maximum pressure campaign, the Iranians at this point, they appear very desperate and would be willing, we assess, to start a fight in this region. We saw the September 14th Aramco attacks, we believe was a responsibility of Iran, other countries, European countries, have said the same: that they, for the first ever, struck Saudi Arabia in a state-on-state conflict. And so what we're trying to do is to prevent a growing, prevent a conflict in this region from growing into something that would really destroy the region.
I understand. Again, as you know, many of the president's own party officials in the United States, plus military, feel that this is opening a territory to Iranian influence in this region. But anyway, we've talked about that. I want to ask you lastly about war crimes. There are some horrendous reports of extrajudicial killings by those associated with the Turkish offensive, whether they're Syrian Turkish militias, or whatever. We understand that white phosphorous has been used against fighters and civilians. We've seen terrible pictures. How do you protect your troops from those kinds of future allegations?

Well first things first, we didn't allow this offensive to happen. Turkey made a strategic decision to conduct this incursion, despite our opposition. That's number one. Number two: I've seen the reports as well, we're trying to monitor them, they are horrible, and if accurate - and I assume that they are accurate - they would be war crimes, as best as I know the law of the land of warfare. So I think all those need to be followed up on. I think those responsible should be held accountable. In many cases it would be the government of Turkey should be held accountable for this. Because we cannot allow those things to happen.

Do you agree with what the president has said, is that these are just two forces who don't like each other, they're in the sandbox, and as if they're in the playground, let them have at it together?

Well look, this is a conflict whose roots go back over 200 years, between the Turks and the Kurds, and they've been fighting now since, what, the early 1980s. So I think that's one of our concerns is, what are we, why do we need to be in the middle of this conflict that's gone on for so long?

But that might constitute sitting back, it might constitute talking about it without doing anything to stop it.

Oh I don't think that's the case. Certainly we would welcome an international, you know, discussion about this to try and resolve it peacefully, but we've got to get to the core of the problem. And the core of the problem is extensive, it goes back, like I said, many years between these, between the Turks and Kurds. And, I mean, you've probably reported on this in the past as well, you know it better than I do.


More news from OPINION