Leaving Syria is ‘knife in the back’ for Kurdish forces, Panetta says

For a deeper look at what this all means,
we turn to Leon Panetta. He served as the director of the CIA and then
secretary of defense during the Obama administration. And Steve Simon, he served as senior director
for Middle Eastern and North African affairs on the National Security Council staff during
the Obama administration. He’s now professor of international relations
at Colby College. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Secretary Panetta, I’d like to begin with
you, if you don’t mind. How big a change in U.S. policy is this latest
move? LEON PANETTA, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense:
Well, I think this is a serious foreign policy blunder that is going to undermine United
States’ leadership and further weaken our role in the world. I mean, we’re putting a knife in the back
of the Kurds who basically fought alongside of us in trying to destroy the ISIS caliphate. And, in basically leaving the Kurds vulnerable,
we have also opened up the possibility that Syria will go into the hands of Russia, Iran,
and that ISIS will further strengthen itself. So, from every aspect, I consider this to
be a very serious blunder on the part of the president. AMNA NAWAZ: Steve Simon, you have long argued
that this was a long time coming, that the alliance with those Syrian — or the Kurdish,
rather, forces there had a very short shelf life, this was inevitable in some ways. Do you agree with this decision to withdraw
U.S. forces? STEVE SIMON, Former National Security Council
Official: Well, I think it was the right decision, but it was really not well-prepared, as Secretary
Panetta points out, I think quite eloquently. It was known certainly since last winter that
this was the president’s inclination, and he was determined to do it. He was talked out of it at the time. But in the interval between the president’s
aborted decision last November and the decision he’s made just today, nothing was done to
prepare the ground for the withdrawal. And this, to me, is just — I guess it’s astounding,
because there were options that the United States could have pursued that would have
reassured Turkey in a way that removed its incentive to invade Syria under conditions
that we’re looking at now. But none of those steps were really taken. And they weren’t taken because there was a
view on the part of the administration that it would entail talking to the regime in Damascus. And this was something that the United States
didn’t want to do. Now, you know, on one level, that’s understandable. The regime in Damascus is repugnant. But if the Turks are going to be assured or
reassured that the PKK won’t be a security problem for them, then, really, the only way
to accomplish that is for these areas of Syria that are now administered by the Kurds are
reinstated into the Syrian state. AMNA NAWAZ: Steve Simon, do I take that to
mean that you… STEVE SIMON: I think that would be OK for
the Turks. AMNA NAWAZ: Should I take this to mean that
you disagree with the president’s decision? STEVE SIMON: As I said, the president’s decision
is perfectly legitimate, I think. It makes a lot of sense. But the ground hasn’t been prepared for that
— for that movement. And it could have been. And it wasn’t because the parties that are
involved didn’t use the time available to them, between the president’s decision last
November to withdraw and now. And that’s deeply regrettable. So the question that we face is how best to
implement President Trump’s decision in ways that don’t lead to serious disorder, civic
disorder, in the areas of Syria that are administered by the Kurds and their Arab allies. It’s a very large area. And, as your report pointed out, it… (CROSSTALK) .. AMNA NAWAZ: Allow me to put that to Secretary
Panetta there. STEVE SIMON: Sorry. AMNA NAWAZ: Is there a good way to implement
this decision? Is there a way to do this in a way that you
think doesn’t lead to a potential resurgence of ISIS forces or doesn’t put our Kurdish
allies on the ground at risk? LEON PANETTA: Well, there’s no way to do it,
when you basically give up the only leverage you have, which is the presence of U.S. troops
in that region. That’s why the president reversed himself
when he first made this decision back in December, and he retained our forces there. If our forces are there, then we can negotiate
with Turkey, we can negotiate with Syria, we can negotiate with others in terms of how
this transition ought to take place. But once you immediately pull out U.S. forces
without that preparation, you’re essentially saying you’re on your own, and Turkey is given
an invitation to basically invade Syria. Those are consequences that are going to hurt
our credibility, the United States’ credibility, with allies. We depend on allies. We depended on the Kurds to help us destroy
the caliphate. To suddenly leave Syria and say to the Kurds,
you’re on your own, sends a signal to other allies not to trust the United States. AMNA NAWAZ: Steve Simon, does this hurt our
credibility with other allies? Who would trust us after this reversal? STEVE SIMON: I think allies are constantly
evaluating the reliability of U.S. commitments. In this case, I think what gets lost is the
fact that the Kurds had their own reasons for joining us in this anti-ISIS operation. They were acting in their interests. And one of those interests was the hope of
U.S. support for some kind of autonomous arrangement for the Kurds within Syria along the lines
that the U.S. had secured for the Kurds in Iraq. So the Kurds were playing their own game here. They were pursuing their own interests. This was not an act of altruism on the part
of the Kurds. At this point, the U.S. and Kurdish interests
are diverging. So you’re seeing a weakening of the alliance
that Secretary Panetta has referred to as a stab in the back, but it’s diverging interests,
and they can’t be helped right now. Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States. AMNA NAWAZ: Steve Simon, very quickly, let
me ask, do you believe that U.S. withdrawal from this area could lead to a resurgence
of the ISIS threat? STEVE SIMON: Well, I think, if the Kurds are
given a choice of fighting the Turks or fighting ISIS, they’re going to turn on the Turks. They’re going to defend themselves against
the stronger enemy and the more lethal one. And that, in effect, is going to damage fight
against ISIS, because, even though the United States has been a keystone in the effort to
combat the Islamic State, the fighting and dying has been done by others, including the
Kurds. So they’re going to be distracted. They don’t have the strength to fight a two-front
war. AMNA NAWAZ: Secretary Panetta, what about
you? LEON PANETTA: Well, there’s no question that
this is going to give ISIS the opportunity to regroup. There are tens of thousands of terrorists
that are in camps that the Kurds have overseen. They are now going to turn their attention
to dealing with the Turks, which means that those terrorists are going to become part
of the ISIS effort. So there is no question that what the president
did is going to basically give ISIS additional ability to reorganize and then threaten the
United States. It’s a terrible mistake. AMNA NAWAZ: Steve Simon, if those fighters
are released or do escape, thousands of them in detention right now watched over by the
Kurdish forces, what’s your reaction to that? What happens then? STEVE SIMON: Well, first of all, it’s hard
for me to believe that these ISIS fighters that we’re talking about are going to make
it to the United States and attack the United States in our own homeland or really have
the assets, the resources, the planning, skill, and so forth to seriously damage the United
States’ interests in the Middle East. So it’s — I’m not a big fan of ISIS, mind
you, but their ability to threaten U.S. interests, I think, is really rather limited. So, the question is… AMNA NAWAZ: Do you still — do they pose a
threat to our NATO allies, to our European allies? STEVE SIMON: Yes, I would say of a limited
nature. But our NATO allies have considerable resources
to deal with this threat. And, mind you, the ISIS fighters we’re talking
about have to get to Europe to do this. To the extent that ISIS is an ideology that’s
extremely anti-Western, well, there’s no question about that. But the ideology doesn’t travel just in bodies. The ideology travels on the Internet and through
other channels to influence opinion of Muslim populations in a lot of places, including
Europe. The fate of these ISIS fighters in Syria,
where they are still beleaguered, even if the Kurds are distracted, is not going to
be a major factor in European or United States security. It will be a major factor for people who live
in areas in which ISIS succeeds in reestablishing control in rural areas of Syria. That’s true. But the effect on the United States interests,
I think, is really, you know, difficult to identify. I think the key task right now is finding
ways to reassure the Turks, get them calmed down, that the Kurds on the Syrian side of
the border will not threaten their security. And I don’t think that that can be done unless
the Syrian regime, as well as the Russians, are brought into the equation. AMNA NAWAZ: Secretary Panetta, I see you shaking
your head. Very briefly, would you like to respond? LEON PANETTA: Yes. With great respect, that’s a very naive approach,
to assume that somehow ISIS will never be able to reorganize and conduct the kind of
attacks that we have seen them conduct in the past. We have learned that from Al-Qaida. We learned from the fact that, when we left
Iraq, what happened was, ISIS reorganized itself and then created a caliphate between
Syria and Iraq that then represented a national security threat to the United States. I don’t think we ought to assume that somehow
ISIS is not going to be intent on their principal goal, which is to attack the United States. That remains a threat. AMNA NAWAZ: And, gentlemen, we will have to
leave it there. Thank you very much for your time. That’s former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta,
former member of the National Security Council under the Obama administration Steve Simon. Thank you.

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