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  • President Donald Trump has surprised the Pentagon and even

  • his allies in Washington as well as the international community,

  • with his abrupt decision to give Turkey the green light

  • to launch a cross-border military operation

  • against the Syrian Democratic Forces.

  • That's the Kurdish-dominated group

  • that American troops have armed, trained,

  • and fought alongside in the battle with Isis.

  • With me to discuss the possible outcomes

  • is Andrew England, the Financial Times Middle East editor.

  • Andrew, first of all, tell us why is this important?

  • Why should anyone care about what's

  • going on with a small group in Syria?

  • Yeah, it's a small group, but it's a very important group.

  • For several years now, they've been

  • at the forefront of the US's battle against Isis

  • in northeastern Syria which is an area controlled

  • by the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces.

  • Now, these guys have been on the ground.

  • They've been very successful in reclaiming territory from Isis.

  • They've captured thousands of Isis fighters,

  • about 1,000 foreign fighters.

  • They are detaining those fighters, plus their families,

  • wives, and children, this kind of thing.

  • So the main concern for Europeans looking at this

  • is what happens to the battle against Isis?

  • And what happens to all these fighters?

  • Because many European countries don't want

  • to actually take them back.

  • Absolutely, and the concern is, if Turkey

  • does launch an operation into northeastern

  • Syria against the Kurds, then they'll be distracted.

  • The detention of all these Syrian Isis fighters

  • would be in jeopardy.

  • What happens to them?

  • What happens to the battle against Isis?

  • Does Isis re-emerge?

  • So that's one element.

  • Why is Turkey so determined to move into Syria?

  • The Syrian war is practically over now.

  • So why start a new front?

  • You're right.

  • Turkey has for years had concerns

  • about what they believe to be Kurdish separatists.

  • The PKK, a Turkish group, has been fighting the Turkish state

  • for more than 30 years, and Turkey sees the Syrian kurds

  • as an extension of the PKK.

  • So in Turkey's eyes, the US has been

  • arming, training terrorists - what Turkey calls terrorists

  • - on their border.

  • So this has for a long time been a point

  • of contention between the US and Turkey, Ankara.

  • And what do we think happened two nights ago?

  • I know that for a while Donald Trump

  • has wanted to bring the troops back home,

  • and he tried earlier this year, at the end of last year,

  • and his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis at the time,

  • resigned.

  • So he went back on his decision, at least partly.

  • What happened now?

  • Good question, but it's Donald Trump,

  • so we're not really sure.

  • What we do know is that Mr Trump had a telephone

  • conversation with President Erdogan of Turkey

  • on Sunday, and then on Sunday night, in the early hours,

  • the White House put out a statement

  • saying Turkey would launch operations in northeast Syria

  • soon.

  • And US troops, who've been supporting the Kurdish

  • militants but also been doing joint patrols with the Turks

  • along that border as confidence building measures,

  • would withdraw.

  • So basically, he was seen to be giving, like you said,

  • a green light.

  • But he's essentially upended his own government's policy

  • towards Syria and towards Turkey.

  • Yes, but it wouldn't be the first time, and to be fair,

  • Donald Trump has long said that he

  • wants to bring the troops home.

  • As you said, in December last year,

  • he announced that he was going to take an estimated 2,000

  • American troops out of northeastern Syria.

  • There's about 1,000 left.

  • So he's always made that a campaign issue, and he's always

  • been very clear he doesn't really care

  • about what happens in Syria.

  • For him, he said, the priority is the fight against Isis.

  • He claims the Isis caliphate, self-declared caliphate

  • is defeated, because Isis has lost its territory.

  • So he kind of wants to wash his hands of this now.

  • He says, look, the kurds, that we paid them.

  • They made lots of money.

  • This is not our war.

  • He said, we were supposed to be there for a short period

  • and we've been there all this time.

  • Let's get home.

  • I see the logic in that, but what is the problem?

  • Who actually gains from this, and is there

  • any chance of not only Isis coming back but other elements,

  • other parts of the Syrian war, erupting again?

  • I think the last thing Syria needs is a new front

  • and any more instability.

  • That northeastern region has pretty much stayed out

  • of the civil war that's been going on since 2011 in Syria,

  • and the Kurds haven't fought against Assad.

  • But what this does, it sends a message to

  • - or this is the fear - it sends a message to any US

  • allies, local allies who've been fighting on the ground,

  • we don't care about you.

  • You're expendable.

  • We can dump you.

  • And it will be seen as a symbolic victory, at least,

  • to Iran and Russia which have sided with President Bashar

  • al-Assad, the Syrian president, during the civil war,

  • because it will be seen as another sign

  • of the US withdrawing from the Middle East symbolically.

  • Just saying, we no longer care about what

  • happens in the Middle East, which

  • would be seen to embolden Iran and Russia, which have taken

  • advantage of European and US marginalisation in Syria

  • to extend their own influence.

  • Has Donald Trump received any support from anyone?

  • President Erdogan, no.

  • To be fair, Republicans in the US spoke...

  • Yes, I saw that Lindsey Graham said

  • that the decision was short-sighted and

  • irresponsible.

  • Exactly, a disaster in the making.

  • Democrats have spoken out against.

  • European governments have put out statements

  • saying that they're concerned about what

  • happens in the fight against Isis, anything

  • that brings more stability.

  • Aid agencies have raised concerns

  • about another flood of displaced people.

  • It's really interesting, Andrew, that the concern is not

  • about the Kurds, and yet the history of the Kurds

  • has been one where they are repeatedly

  • let down by western allies that they work with.

  • What happens to the Kurds in this case?

  • This was always going to be a huge question

  • anyway, because the Kurds, the SDF,

  • they've used the battle against Isis and the civil war

  • to carve out this kind of autonomous

  • enclave in the northeast.

  • Now, the Assad regime has been fighting rebels and opposition

  • across the country.

  • So they've stayed clear of this, and they've

  • allowed the SDF to maintain their autonomy,

  • fight against Isis, and have their alliance with the US.

  • At some stage, this was always going

  • to become a question of what happens next?

  • Now, the SDF has had talks with the Assad regime previously,

  • as the war in Syria has diminished,

  • and they have to try and work out what kind of arrangement

  • there will be.

  • This could actually push the SDF closer to the Assad regime,

  • and whether they can negotiate some form

  • of autonomous, decentralised rule or not, but we don't know.

  • That's going to be a big question that's

  • got to be resolved, and it was always

  • going to be a sticking point as the Assad regime reasserts

  • control over most of the rest of the country.

  • Once they've done that, then the question of what happens

  • in this northeastern area on the Turkish...

  • Is there an argument that Donald Trump

  • is ultimately right in his analysis of the situation?

  • Because what else would the Kurds do,

  • and where else would they go, if they're squeezed between Turkey

  • which doesn't want them to have any autonomy and the regime

  • in Damascus which also doesn't want them to have autonomy.

  • So unless the US protects them for the much longer term,

  • they're going to have to make that choice

  • and to re-engage with the Assad regime.

  • Look, I think the Kurdish issue in the northeast

  • is always going to have to be resolved.

  • There's got to be a solution to it at some point,

  • or there will be conflict.

  • And Trump is correct in saying that the battle,

  • or this conflict, the simmering conflict between Ankara

  • and Kurdish separatists, has been going on for decades.

  • The question is how you manage it.

  • What had happened after Trump was persuaded not to withdraw

  • all his troops, after saying he would,

  • in December last year, we've seen sort of some confidence

  • building measures.

  • So US troops, since August, have been doing joint patrols

  • with the Turks on the border, and they've

  • been doing joint air patrols, and the SDF

  • was removing some of its defences close to the border.

  • The problem was Erdogan wasn't satisfied.

  • He wanted to go deeper into Syria.

  • He wanted to create, he wants to create a safe zone

  • 32 kilometres deep inside Syria.

  • The Americans weren't going to go that deep.

  • So now, seems like he's convinced Trump

  • that the way to resolve this is allow

  • him to move Turkish troops in and create this zone.

  • And then Erdogan argues that that will allow

  • for the resettlement of some of the 3.6m refugees that Turkey

  • is hosting, and that's a huge domestic pressure on Erdogan.

  • Assuming that the refugees want to go back.

  • Assuming they do and assuming that it's not forced,

  • would that shake up the whole demographics of this region?

  • You're sending Arab Syrians back into this area who

  • didn't come from this area, but still, you're

  • going to have to resolve the Kurdish question.

  • And so the question is should the US

  • be there to play a leading role in confidence building

  • measures between the Kurdish militants

  • and Turkey whilst the resolution is resolved?

  • And should there be greater political pressure

  • on actually getting the settlement,

  • or some sort of political transition in Syria,

  • that everybody seems to have forgotten about.

  • Well, yeah, we've been waiting for a very long time

  • for a political transition in Syria.

  • So my last question to you, Andrew,

  • is, given the backlash in DC, and indeed across the world,

  • do you think this time President Trump will

  • stick with the decision, or you think by tomorrow

  • he would have said, OK, now I understand this better,

  • and I will not pull all the troops.

  • I think that's what we need to wait and see what happens.

  • After there was a backlash, Trump

  • tweeted that he would economically destroy Turkey

  • if they did things that were against certain limits.

  • We don't know what that means.

  • Was it a response for the backlash, is it just bluster,

  • or would he put pressure on Turkey not to go far?

  • Because the other question we have

  • to ask is what will Erdogan do next?

  • He's been for months talking about the need

  • to create this zone deep inside Syria

  • and constantly belligerent rhetoric against the Kurdish

  • militants.

  • How will he act now?

  • Now, he's got the green light.

  • The onus is on what does he do?

  • Now, will he go deep into Syria and potentially

  • create that conflict with the Syrian Kurds,

  • or will they just go in so far, where

  • they don't go deep enough to actually trigger a bigger

  • conflict?

  • So there are many variables I think

  • we're going to have to watch, but clearly, Jim Mattis, who

  • stood up to Trump last time and then resigned, he's gone.

  • There are less adults in the room,

  • as we say, in the White House, in the administration,

  • to put pressure on Trump, but clearly, there

  • is a Republican backlash which might make him think twice.

  • So a story that we will keep on watching very closely

  • with our correspondents on the ground and with you

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