Kurdish General Slams U.S.-Syria Policy; Gen. Petraeus Calls Withdrawal 'A Betrayal'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to begin with what has been one of the most explosive and potentially consequential weeks in the Trump administration so far and a week that seen the president's penchant for breaking long-held norms of governance applied to sensitive matters of international affairs and national security. To review, State Department witnesses have told Congress about a shadow foreign policy being conducted by the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. And the White House chief of staff publicly confirmed that the president did demand concessions from Ukraine's president in exchange for aid and other engagement with the United States. And the president's abrupt pullout of U.S. troops from Northern Syria, abandoning longtime Kurdish allies, has sparked a cascade of reactions including an incursion of Russian troops into the area.
That move has prompted strong objections from some of the president's most reliable supporters as well as a number of former top military leaders. We're going to hear from one of them now - retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus. He's led U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, served as commander of U.S. Central Command, where he oversaw military operations in the Middle East, and was later CIA director.
General Petraeus, thank you so much for joining us.
DAVID PETRAEUS: Good to be with you, Michel. Thanks.
MARTIN: So just to briefly summarize where we are right now, the president ordered this abrupt pullout of troops from northern Syria after a phone call with Turkey's president, who has long wanted to get Kurdish forces away from Turkey's border. And, as many people know, Kurdish forces have been working with the U.S. forces for years to combat violent extremists. The vice president and secretary of state went to negotiate a cease-fire between Turkey and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. But our reporting indicates that that cease-fire is shaky. So I'd like to ask you to begin with, what's your number one concern at this point in Syria?
PETRAEUS: Well, a week ago, when this policy was first announced, I said publicly that I had four concerns. One was that it might enable an ISIS resurgence. The second - that it could essentially enable ethnic displacement - perhaps even ethnic cleansing. Third, that it would give a victory to Iran and Russia and the murderous Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. And then, fourth, it would call our credibility as allies and partners into question. And unfortunately, frankly, I think that those concerns have been operationalized, have been borne out.
I agree very much with Lindsey Graham, a close ally of the president and, frankly, a longtime friend, and Senator McConnell, who assessed this withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria as a grave strategic mistake - his words. And I also spent four years in Iraq, so I know the Kurds in Iraq very, very well as well. You know, the Kurds always used to say that the Kurds have no friends but the mountains. And I would reassure them, and I would say Americans are your friends. We have conducted Operation Northern Watch essentially to protect you for decades. And we are here now, and we will not desert you. And, sadly, this is arguably a betrayal.
MARTIN: Would there have been a good way to exit Syria? I mean, the president has been saying that this was something he campaigned on. This was a campaign promise, and he is simply fulfilling it. And I think his - the implication is that people should not have been surprised that this is his decision. You've laid out, you know, a number of consequences that you see. But would there have been a way to accomplish this without causing all the effects that you have described?
PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, let me just note that I don't think anyone understands the desire to end endless wars more than those who are privileged to command our men and women in uniform in those very challenging wars. And, of course, I commanded Iraq at the height of the operation, the surge, and then the same in Afghanistan and the overall region. So, again, I fully understand it. And I absolutely understand the need to keep the cost - to reduce the cost, especially in blood and treasure, to an absolute minimum.
But we've essentially done that. I mean, we had less than 1,500 - perhaps even less than that. And yes, some of those are the very high-demand, low-density special operations forces that have played such an important role in this particular campaign. But surely that's affordable for the world's only military superpower. Surely that is a price that we should be willing to assume given that what we were doing was not in the fighting on the front lines. We were enabling those who were doing that.
MARTIN: You noted that Senator McConnell, Senator Graham are political supporters of the president, members of his party. But what's notable about the current moment is that many other former military leaders have been outspoken about this in their criticism of these actions in Syria. And many of them indicate that this is something that is not comfortable for them to do - that their normal inclination is not to be outspoken about a policy decision made by the commander in chief. But why do you think this is the issue that's caused a number of these people to speak out who otherwise are inclined not to do that?
PETRAEUS: Well, I think there has been an accumulation of worries, if you will, about - by the way, not just about the president, who's quite proud to describe himself as a disrupter in chief. This is about more than that. It's actually about the disruption of democracy in Washington - in particular, the inability of Congress to even do its most basic functions. Our Department of Defense is once again under a continuing resolution. They haven't passed a budget for it. We have these periodic threats to shut down government or actual shutdowns of parts of government.
And I think again that the inclination by most of my old comrades and certainly my inclination has been to perhaps comment on policy from time to time but generally to avoid certainly becoming perceived as partisan. But clearly, a couple of very high-profile old battlefield comrades of mine have felt the need to go beyond that. And there is a real concern.
MARTIN: Given everything that you've said, given how chaotic and so forth the situation now is, what is the most productive role for the U.S. right now in your view?
PETRAEUS: Well, we have to salvage what can be salvaged in the fight against the Islamic State. We have to try to get into a political process which now the Iran and Russia and Bashar al-Assad have - clearly have an upper hand. We have to take care of those refugees who are being pushed out of their homes or fleeing from their homes because of the agreement that has been made. And somehow, we have to also try to shore up our international credibility at a time when it has been called into question.
MARTIN: That was General David Petraeus. He's the former commanding general in both Afghanistan and Iraq, a former head of the CIA.
General, thank you so much for talking with us today.
PETRAEUS: A pleasure, Michel. Thanks.
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