In the aftermath of U.S. troop withdrawal from northeast Syria, USIP’s Mona Yacoubian says “we’re seeing Russia come in and fill the vacuum,” which will have “long-term strategic implications” for stemming a possible reemergence of ISIS as well as U.S. influence in the region.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley (host): Let's return to the serious subject of what's been taking place in Syria, and with Turkey, and the United States, and Russia. Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense yesterday:

Mark Esper: I think the broader strategic context is this. Look, it's no surprise that President Trump said coming into office, as he campaigned, that he wanted to bring American soldiers [and] service members home as much as he can and to end the endless wars, in his words, and so this is part and parcel of that.

Mike Pompeo: The truth was that it was not in Turkey's interest as a NATO ally to continue with that incursion. The truth was that our invasion set back are shared fight against ISIS. We think now we're in a better place.

Tim Farley: That is the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Let's bring into the conversation Mona Yacoubian, who is a senior policy advisor, senior policy scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, tweeting @myacoubian. Mona, welcome back. Thank you for being here today.

Mona Yacoubian: Thanks for having me.

Tim Farley: The decision the United States made for good, for ill, the president says was not a surprise. I wonder though if it was a surprise to some people.

Mona Yacoubian: Well, I guess it was, because clearly we didn't do the sort of contingency planning one would expect given the way events have unfolded over the last two weeks or so, but the president actually has been fairly consistent on his desire to have our troops leave Syria, starting in April of last year. So, in some ways while it is maybe a surprise to some, it probably shouldn't have been.

Tim Farley: It was something that angered Kurds, at least if we are to believe the video we saw of the citizens who were throwing potatoes at retreating U.S. military vehicles. My question, I guess, then next is what is the consequence of this withdrawal?

Mona Yacoubian: Oh, I think the consequences are significant. Certainly from what you've just described, I think our Kurdish partners on the ground view it as a betrayal, understandably. And I think we should remember that the Kurds lost 11,000 fighters in the battle against ISIS. They took significant losses, and I think they had come to rely on us and depend on us as their partners on the ground.

In addition though, I think more importantly, what we're seeing is Russia come in and fill the vacuum that's been left by the U.S. withdrawal. And we see it in the agreement that was just negotiated between Putin and Turkish President Erdoğan. And I think we're going to see it in the coming months as Russia continues to solidify its role as now the key power broker inside Syria.

Tim Farley: Well, talk about the, I guess, irony of this, because the NATO Alliance, North American Treaty Organization, was designed to protect countries against the incursion of then the Soviet Union, now obviously Russia, and Turkey is a member of that Alliance and here they are aligning with Russia in this particular region. Does this do anything to the NATO Alliance? Does it render it insignificant or irrelevant?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say it renders it irrelevant, but it is an absolutely breathtaking turn of events in a sense, if we think about it. Because now, we have Turkey essentially attached at the hip to Russia as a part of this agreement. They are going to be conducting joint patrols across northeastern Syria, and they've already been engaged in agreements in the northwest of Syria.

And so, one can't help but conclude that this moves Turkey further out of the Western orbit and closer to Russia. Let's not forget that Turkey also purchased Russian ground-to-air missiles this past summer, the S-400. So, yes, I think we are seeing Turkey move further and further away from its role as a NATO ally.

Tim Farley: Mona, why do you think President Trump is being so accommodating to Turkey?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, I think President Trump has long talked about, again, his desire to end the forever wars. And at the same time, Turkish President Erdoğan, has long voiced his concern about our partnership with the Kurds and his desire to see the Kurds pushed off of that border between Turkey and Syria.

And so in some ways, I think there was sort of a confluence of interests, if you will, between President Trump and President Erdoğan. But again, I think that the impact of this decision is going to have long-term strategic implications for the United States in Syria and frankly much more broadly in the Middle East.

Tim Farley: Mona Yacoubian, with us, senior policy scholar at the United States Institute of Peace. What does this mean for the possible resurgence of ISIS?

Mona Yacoubian: Oh, I think it's very concerning. We were already worried about the potential for ISIS to resurge when we maintained our forces on the ground in partnership with the Kurds. There were signs of sleeper cells emerging and assassinations and other things.

Now, the Kurds' attention is going to be, I think, perhaps taken away from its role in the counter ISIS struggle as it seeks to redefine itself now in this new Syria, this part of the northeast that's now going to be under Russian and Syrian regime control.

I think it's important to remember, the Kurds have been guarding up to 10,000 ISIS fighters in makeshift prisons across northeast Syria. What's going to happen to those fighters? What will happen to those detention centers? I think it's a big question.

Tim Farley: Mona, without getting specific about candidates, there has been much more debate about whether or not the United States needs to be involved in these so called endless wars, and the move toward, if not isolationism, certainly a much more self-centered approach to global affairs.

Senator Rand Paul has talked about that. He's more libertarian leaning in that way. Senator Bernie Sanders has talked about that. Is that a trend that you see, number one? Number two, is it a trend that is good or not so good for the U.S.?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, it's absolutely a trend, I think we see. A shift, frankly, on both sides of the aisle toward wanting to pull America out of these long standing commitments in the Middle East.

What's ironic is that in Syria, we had happened upon a very creative model that featured actually a very small U.S. Footprint, 2,000 forces at its height. And that had been quite successful in liberating large swathes of Syria from ISIS control at a very low cost in terms of U.S., blood and treasure.

And so that model of working by, with, and through local partners, I would argue, could really help offer a way forward and out of these forever wars.

Tim Farley: So, in other words, this was sort of a military example of working smarter, not harder.

Mona Yacoubian: That's exactly right. And it's unfortunate that we've abandoned that model and I hope we at least understand better what the potential benefits are as we think about our engagement in this part of the world going forward.

Tim Farley: I wonder also if you think, and this is going to wrap us up, but I wondered that you talked about the reputation the United States is taking as kind of a hit on our standing by allies, et cetera. And this has been part of the conversation. I wonder if it also is an indicator that President Trump telegraphs his moves.

In other words, there is a sense now, that people I talk to, that he not only ... He liked chaos. He doesn't want to say what he's ... Or talk about what he believes about certain things, but he does seem to be a little bit more predictable that he will back off in some ways when the going gets tough.

I don't know if it's just because he's living up through his principles or because maybe he doesn't feel that he's got a strong enough position to really challenge some people. I'm not sure if I'm making sense there, but do you see where I'm going on that?

Mona Yacoubian: I think I do. Again, I think the president has actually fairly consistently said that he wants to pull America out of these forever wars. He's not interested in starting new wars. We've seen that in terms of his response, frankly, to provocations from Iran where the Iranians downed a U.S. drone and the president, at the last minute, decided to avert sending U.S. missiles to Iranian targets.

So, I think it's fairly clear that this is a president who is very conflict averse, in a region that, frankly, at this point, is incredibly volatile and unfortunately, I think holds the potential for greater instability down the road.

Tim Farley: You had the phrase that I was looking for, conflict averse, and maybe that's it. Mona, thanks for being here.

Mona Yacoubian: Thank you very much for having me, Tim.

Tim Farley: Mona Yacoubian who is a senior policy scholar at the U S Institute of Peace on thoughts on Syria, tweeting @myacoubian. That is @myacoubian.

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