RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump says, quote, "I consulted with everybody," as he defended his decision to pull U.S. troops from the Turkish-Syrian border. But two U.S. officials tell NPR that military leaders directly involved in countering ISIS were blindsided by the president's sudden policy shift. The move is raising serious concerns that a Turkish invasion in northern Syria could endanger U.S. allies, the Kurds, who've been fighting alongside the U.S. against the Islamic State. Even Trump's closest friends in Congress say the move will undercut U.S. foreign policy in the region. Here's Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Fox News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LINDSEY GRAHAM: I expect the American president to do what's in our national security interest, and it's never in our national security interest to abandon an ally who's helped us fight ISIS. It's never in our national security interest to create the conditions for the reemergence of ISIS.
MARTIN: In a moment, we're going to hear directly from the top commander of Kurdish forces in Syria. But first, I want to bring in NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who's following all this. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: You spoke with these two U.S. officials. What did they tell you about the president's decision to take these U.S. troops out of this border area?
BOWMAN: Well, they said they're surprised and also worried. And there are several concerns, Rachel. They fear that Turkey will launch this military operation into northeast Syria and leave these American-allied Kurdish forces alone to fight Turkey. And they worry that those Kurdish forces will abandon the anti-ISIS fight, also the prisons where they're holding ISIS prisoners, to focus on Turkey.
Now, President Trump says he's defeated the caliphate. That's true. But what he has failed to say is ISIS is regrouping. They're slipping back into cities and towns, mounting assassinations and bombings. One of the U.S. officials who spoke with NPR says this is reminiscent of last December - remember - when the president abruptly said he wanted all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria.
BOWMAN: Pentagon officials convinced Trump to keep about a thousand troops in northeast Syria to continue to fight against ISIS, and that's what you have now - about a thousand.
MARTIN: And we're talking about, though, these troops specifically deployed to the border area, and that we understand to be only a couple of dozen. But nevertheless, the Pentagon caught blindsided by this. I mean, what are U.S. officials telling you? Did - were they consulted at all?
BOWMAN: Well, what they're saying is they knew that there was a phone conversation between President Trump and President Erdogan of Turkey. They didn't know what the president would say. There was never any interagency discussion about the way ahead, about the policy. So the president made his decision, and the Pentagon was basically informed of his decision to remove troops. There was never any discussion about the policy change, what you want to do; they were just informed.
MARTIN: Which is the opposite of what President Trump said about consulting.
BOWMAN: That's right.
MARTIN: All right. Stay with me, Tom, because I want to play some tape for you. Earlier this morning, we got in touch with the commander, the top commander, of the Syrian Democratic Forces. This is the Kurdish forces who have been allied with the U.S. in Syria. And the top commander's name is General Mazloum Kobani Abdi. And I want to play some excerpts of our conversation. He was speaking through his own translator, who was there on the ground with him. And I asked the general what the consequences would be if President Trump follows through on this pledge to take these U.S. troops away from the border. This is what he said.
MAZLOUM KOBANI ABDI: (Through interpreter) Because so far, we still focus on ISIS. And the most experienced troops of our - in our ranks, they are taking care of the camps and the prisons and the most dangerous people, that we hold them in our detention facilities. So in case of the American withdrawal from the border areas and invasion started - that jump-started their incursion, for sure the one priority for us, it will be protecting our areas and our families. And we will not be focusing on ISIS like we focused (ph) before.
MARTIN: I'm just repeating what he said - we will not be focusing on ISIS as we were before. He's talking about having his troops abandon those posts, Tom. That means ISIS, those prisoners, would just be released.
BOWMAN: That's possible. And there are, Rachel, more than 10,000 of these ISIS prisoners, and as he said, some of his best fighters are guarding them. So there's a real concern about if these Kurdish fighters who are guarding the prisoners move up to fight the Turks, who will be guarding the prisons? And there's really no answer to that right yet, but it's a very, very huge concern among military officials.
MARTIN: Turkey has said they intend to attack Kurdish forces in Syria because they see them as a terrorist group, even though they have been historically, for many years, U.S. ally. I asked the general if this happens, if Turkey launches an attack, what his options are. Here's what he said.
ABDI: (Through interpreter) Our choice is very clear, and we have - been decided for many years ago, and that is to work with the coalition and to keep partner with the Americans, and we still are. If we see that this is not doable anymore, of course we're going to - looking for some other options. And any collaboration with the central government of Syria or the regime, it's going to be - depend on agreement that includes the Kurdish right and the autonomy of our areas.
MARTIN: So he was - he is talking there, Tom, about potentially engaging in conversations with the Syrian government, President Bashar al-Assad. Obviously, that's going to complicate matters for the Trump administration because the president clearly has an alliance with Turkey's President Erdogan but also the relationship that the U.S. has with the Kurds.
BOWMAN: That's right. And what you're doing is you're pushing them into the arms of Bashar al-Assad. And that could cause other problems as well because you have Russian forces there. When I was there with the Syrian forces last year, hundreds of Russian mercenaries started moving on a base with U.S. and Kurdish forces, Rachel, trying to capture an oil field, and they were hammered by U.S. airstrikes. So the concern is that Trump's decision to pull back U.S. forces could embolden Russia, as well as Syrian and Iranian troops, to take advantage of the chaos and really move into the breach, move into some of these areas now controlled by Kurdish and U.S. forces.
MARTIN: There's one more bit of tape I want to play. I asked the general about President Trump's assertion that Turkey could take control of the fight against ISIS in Syria. Let's listen.
ABDI: (Through interpreter) I think this is something impossible, and there is not any probability for this to happen. Everybody know these facts - that Turkey was the spring of terrorists, and all the terrorists come through Turkey to Syria. And we don't believe militarily (ph) that the Turks can be handling the fight against terrorists.
MARTIN: And just briefly, Tom, that's the consensus among even Trump's closest allies, right? Are you hearing of any effort on behalf of Pentagon officials to get President Trump to walk this decision back?
BOWMAN: Well, they did back in December, as I said, to prevent Trump from removing all U.S. troops. I'm told that U.S. military officials will be meeting at the White House and will likely try to prevent any removal of U.S. forces.
MARTIN: All right. Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon correspondent. We also heard from the top Kurdish commander in Syria.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.