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Former U.S. Diplomat Weighs In On U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Syria


President Trump's abrupt announcement that he is removing U.S. troops from Syria caught many by surprise, including those who have been fighting alongside the Americans, specifically allied Kurdish forces.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock just visited a military base in northern Syria right near the Turkish border, and she was speaking with a 25-year-old Kurdish soldier named Mohammed (ph). We're only using his first name because he did not have formal authorization to speak. But here was his reaction to Trump's announcement.

MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) This decision is very dangerous because we're still fighting ISIS on the frontline in Hajin town. And even in those areas where we forced ISIS out, there are still thousands of sleeper cells. We all know that they're still active.

GREENE: All right, let's talk through the implications of President Trump's decision with Robert Ford. He served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014. He's now a fellow at the Middle East Institute, and also a senior fellow at Yale University. Ambassador, good morning.

ROBERT FORD: Good morning.

GREENE: So is the president making the right decision here to pull out of Syria?

FORD: I don't usually agree with President Trump, but in this case, I do. I think he's making the right decision to pull out, and it needs to be done slowly but surely.

GREENE: Is it going to happen slowly but surely? I mean, I don't know if we've gotten a firm timeline from the Trump administration.

FORD: Yeah. I think they're working on that now. The president seemed to say in a tweet he put out the other day that it'll be slow and gradual and coordinated.

GREENE: Why do you think this is a good move? A lot of people are really concerned that those 2,000 or so forces have been doing some important work to fight ISIS.

FORD: Well, I think there are people who were hoping that we could completely destroy ISIS, but you can't destroy an ideology with fighters, with soldiers. Soldiers don't destroy ideologies. And other people thought it was a place to draw a line against Iran. But Iran's already in Syria, and it's not leaving.

And so I think there were people who had a variety of ideas about what an American military force in Syria can do, but the ideas themselves aren't very realistic.

GREENE: So the Kurdish soldier that we just heard from - I mean, is there a reason he shouldn't feel abandoned by the United States here?

FORD: Well, I think I understand why he feels abandoned, but his fight - a fight to set up an autonomous Kurdish zone, a self-ruling entity in northeastern Syria - his fight is not our fight. And I think that's the crux of the issue that needs to be discussed about the presence of U.S. troops in Syria.

GREENE: What is the downside of keeping the 2,000 forces? You know, beyond, obviously, putting Americans in danger, which is always a deep concern, is there a downside to keeping the force there for some time?

FORD: Well, yeah, there is. It's a constant risk that we will get pulled into the fights that have long been going on between other states in the region. The Turkish fight with Syrian Kurds goes back decades, and I think President Trump is wise to try to keep us out of that fight.

You put troops in northeastern Syria, and all of a sudden, you're in the middle of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran. It's messy. And I have to think most Americans don't really want to get involved in that.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about the flip side of that. You know, for the U.S. to pull out, maybe you avoid getting tangled in some of those fights that you mentioned. But is there a risk in nations like Russia and nations like Iran filling a vacuum and having greater influence not just in Syria but throughout the region? And could that be a real concern for the U.S. role in the world?

FORD: Well, I don't think either Russia or China hopes to dominate the Middle East militarily. I think they are there for purely commercial reasons.

The Russians, for example, have gas and oil contracts with the Syrian government, with Bashar al-Assad's government. So of course, they'd like those oil fields. But that Kurdish fighter that you talked about - his forces control those oil fields. The Russians would like them. They've got a contract.

But that isn't a reason to keep U.S. forces there. Do we really want to get in the middle of a commercial argument between Russia and Syria and Turkey and the Kurds?

GREENE: You were in Damascus in 2011 when the Syrian civil war broke out. I mean, it looked like Bashar al-Assad's rule could be at risk. He has held on. Can you just reflect now, looking seven years back? I mean, we have the United States announcing this pullout. We have Russia still there. We have Assad still in power. What are you reflecting on at this moment?

FORD: Well, I was there. It was almost eight years ago now that the uprising started. And it is a reminder to me, and especially after I was in Iraq for five years, that we cannot control events on the ground in places like Iraq and Syria. Iraqis control them. Syrians control them. And so we have to be realistic about what we can achieve, as an American military force cannot fix all of the social, economic and political problems in that region.

GREENE: Robert Ford served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014. Ambassador, thanks for spending some of your holiday with us. We appreciate it.

FORD: It is my pleasure. Season's greetings.

GREENE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.