Military veterans Gabbard, Buttigieg tangle over Syria during Democratic debate

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardDemocrats set early state primary debates for 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Gabbard news items generating more social interactions than other 2020 Democrats: study MORE (D-Hawaii) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Buttigieg rolls out endorsements from South Bend officials Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D) — the only two military veterans on stage at Tuesday's Democratic primary debate — clashed over President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Gabbard blamed Turkey’s onslaught against onetime U.S. partners the Kurds on politicians in both parties and the media, who she said were “championing and cheerleading” a “regime change war” in Syria.

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“The slaughter of the Kurds being done by Turkey is yet another negative consequence of the regime change war that we’ve been raging in Syria,” she said. “Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hands, but so do many of the politicians in our country from both parties who have supported this ongoing regime change war in Syria that started in 2011, along with many in the mainstream media.”

Buttigieg shot back a short time later that Gabbard was “dead wrong.”

“The slaughter going in Syria is not a consequence of American presence, it’s a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values,” Buttigieg said.

Gabbard and Buttigieg are both U.S. military veterans, the only ones on Tuesday night’s debate stage.

Trump has ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from northern Syria in a move that has widely been seen as greenlighting a long-threatened Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces that were instrumental in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS. 

Gabbard has long been opposed to U.S. support for rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, who Gabbard met on a trip to Syria in 2017. Critics have accused Gabbard of parroting Syrian and Russian talking points in saying the U.S. has supported “terrorists” in Syria.

Gabbard on Tuesday said it is “completely despicable” that critics of her stance on the Syrian civil war label her a “Russian asset” and an “Assad apologist.”

“As president I will end these regime change wars by doing two things: ending the draconian sanctions that are really a modern-day siege the likes of which we are seeing Saudi Arabia wage against Yemen that have caused tens of thousands of Syrian civilians to die and to starve, and I would make sure that we stop supporting terrorists like al Qaeda in Syria,” she said.

Buttigieg said that while he didn’t support the Iraq War and thinks the United States should withdraw from Afghanistan, a small number of special operations forces and intelligence capabilities were “the only thing that stood between that part of Syria and what we’re seeing now, which the beginning of a genocide and the resurgence of ISIS.”

“Meanwhile, soldiers in the field are reporting that for the first time, they feel ashamed, ashamed of what their country has done,” he continued. “When I deployed, I knew one of the things that was keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country known to keep its word, and our allies knew it, and our enemies knew it. You take that away, you are taking away what makes America America.”

Gabbard responded to Buttigieg by saying he would have U.S. troops in Syria for “an indefinite period of time to continue this regime change war.”

“You would continue to have our country involved in a war that has undermined our national security. You would continue this policy of the U.S. actually providing arms and support to terrorist groups in Syria like al Qaeda … That’s really what you’re saying," she said.

Buttigieg replied that it is possible to “end endless wars” without embracing Trump’s policies.

Gabbard interjected, asking Buttigieg, “Will you end the regime change wars?”

“What we were doing in Syria was keeping our word,” Buttigieg responded. “Part of what makes it possible for the United States to get people to put their lives on the line to back us up is the idea that we will back them up, too.”

“It is undermining the honor of our soldiers,” he added. “You take away the honor of our soldiers, you might as well go after their body armor next.”