Ex-US commander warns Trump’s Syria retreat ‘threatens to undo’ ISIS gains

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The former commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East said Tuesday that President Trump’s decision to retreat from northeast Syria and pave the way for a Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurds could add to the humanitarian crisis in the region and turn off potential future U.S. partners.

“For me, the overall sentiment is one of disappointment. Disappointment that we’re letting down our partners, perhaps adding to the humanitarian disaster in this region, and that we may be ceding a hard-won strategic advantage to play a role in what is admittedly turning into a lengthy and difficult process to bringing a political solution to this troubled area,” retired Gen. Joseph Votel, who was commander of U.S. Central Command until his retirement in March, said at an Atlantic Council event Tuesday.

{mosads}“I believe that partnership is important. This partnership certainly is,” he added later. “It must however be nourished frequently and be based completely on mutual trust. I do believe yesterday’s policy shift will make it more difficult to build partnerships in the future.”

In addition to his remarks at the Atlantic Council, Votel also co-wrote an op-ed for the Atlantic with Middle East Institute nonresident fellow Elizabeth Dent in which they warned that Trump’s move “threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against ISIS and will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights where we need strong allies.”

Votel’s comments add to a chorus of criticism following Trump’s decision, announced by the White House late Sunday, to move U.S. troops in northeast Syria out of the way of a long threatened Turkish incursion against Syrian Kurdish forces.

Trump has defended his decision by saying that it is time to end U.S. involvement in “ridiculous Endless Wars” and defending Turkey as a NATO ally.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including many of Trump’s typical Republican allies, have criticized the move as abandoning the Kurds, who were instrumental in the fight against ISIS, to be slaughtered by Turkey.

The Kurds lead the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that the United States relied on as the main ground force fighting ISIS. But Ankara considers the Kurds terrorists connected to a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.

On Tuesday, Votel highlighted the more than 11,000 casualties the SDF suffered fighting ISIS on the U.S.-led coalition’s behalf.

“In my humble opinion, they are a capable and trustworthy partner, and did everything we asked them to do even when it was not something that they necessarily wanted,” Votel said. “Beyond that, they protected us every day. Their dedication to the fight and to our partnership was always evident to me.”

In order to assuage Turkish concerns about Kurdish forces near the Syria-Turkey border, the United States had been working with Turkey to set up a safe zone along the border, an effort that U.S. military was touting as recently as Saturday.

Votel said the safe zone offered the best solution even though it did not completely satisfy every party.

“I do believe the approach we were taking with increased security mechanisms in the border area was moving this in a steady, albeit slow, but a satisfactory overall direction, although I also understand that no one party would ever be completely satisfied with the solution or the speed in attaining it,” he said.

Votel also called the U.S. partnership with the SDF a “model” for how to handle a complex environment such as Syria. 

“I have long held that the partnership we have crafted with the Syrian Democratic Forces is a model of how we should be protecting our interests in these very complex areas,” he said. “It gave us a way to do what we do best as Americans — convene, collaborate, team-build, understand, focus, enable and advise — while minimizing our footprint and keeping the ownership of the solution on the ground in local hands.”

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