RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump has upended his own administration's policy on Syria. The president said the U.S. would move its troops out of the border region between Syria and Turkey, clearing the way for Turkey to wage an attack on U.S.-backed Kurds who have been helping fight ISIS. NPR has learned that Pentagon officials were caught off guard by the decision; so was Congress. And even Trump's closest allies say the move is a dangerous mistake. Here's what Republican Senator Lindsey Graham had to say yesterday on Fox.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: I expect the American president to do what's in our national security interest. 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: Brett McGurk was special envoy on ISIS under George W. Bush, Barack Obama and the Trump administration. He resigned last December, in part over President Trump's position on Syria. He is a former ambassador, and he joins us now. Mr. McGurk, thanks for being back on the show.
BRETT MCGURK: Thanks, Rachel.
MARTIN: You, as I noted, and former Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned from your positions in the Trump administration after the president announced last year that he was going to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. So what was your reaction to the White House - to the president's decision on Sunday?
MCGURK: Well, you know, since - since I left the administration, he had really walked back that decision, it seems. And he had cut - well, it was already a very small force in Syria - important for viewers to recognize. There were very few Americans on the ground in Syria. At its height, it was probably about 2,500 troops. It's down now to about a thousand. We're spending almost no money. We have a big coalition that helps us do this. So the U.S. investment is quite limited.
And since I left at the end of last year, President Trump had reversed his decision to leave, and he kept about a thousand troops or so in the country. And...
MARTIN: Cutting it about in half - right? - from what he originally wanted.
MCGURK: That's right. That's what I understand. And his senior officials had said that we plan to stay indefinitely given the interest there. So the fact that he, on a whim, after a call with a foreign leader - President Erdogan once again - reversed himself again and said, actually, we're going to leave, I was surprised. And I think - it seems that the entire administration was surprised.
MARTIN: So what's the big deal, I guess? I mean, if it's such a small contingent of U.S. troops that we're talking about, what are the consequences of that as you see it?
MCGURK: Well - yeah, that's a good question. They're not - they're not any troops. They're our elite special forces. And they help enable a group of about 60,000 Syrians that we have trained over a period of years. And these are Arab fighters, Kurds, Christians. And they kind of work together as a fairly cohesive entity called the Syrian Democratic Forces. And we help them. But - it's called enabling.
So we help them protect themselves, should they be threatened by the Assad regime or others or ISIS. And they help us. They help do our sustainment, force protection. So it's a real partnership. We can be there on the ground in small numbers because of this force that we helped build. So when you say we're going to allow Turkey to come in to fight the force that we helped build, it makes it very difficult for us to even stay at all.
MARTIN: And we should just underscore that the reason there's all this concern is that these allies that the U.S. has been building up and supporting - the Kurdish forces there who've been helping the U.S. fight ISIS - Turkey sees them as terrorists. So when the U.S. removes even the small contingent, it opens the door for Turkey to wage its own attack.
MCGURK: Yeah. I mean, there's two problems here. And one - look. If the president wants to leave Syria, he can say to his national security team, I want you to get out in six months; figure out the way to do it. And they can come up with a plan that would be far from optional - or optimal. But they could come up with a - with a scheme that would protect our interests. When a president simply says - I talked to President Erdogan. He's going to begin his operation into Syria, which he's long talked about, and we plan to leave - that jumbles everything. Because then we lose - the force that we're working with lose - loses confidence. The Russians are listening to this. The Iranians are listening to this. The Assad regime is listening to this.
MARTIN: We should note - the Russians and the Iranians, who have troops in Syria.
MCGURK: Well, of course. It's a very complicated situation. And - but the president seems to think that he preserves options. He actually said yesterday that we can go back in and blast - that was his word - go back in and blast, should ISIS come back. Actually, you can't because who's going to sign up with us? Who's going to fight with us?
And one thing about this mission - we have lost about five Americans in Syria tragically. But the force that we helped train, they've lost about 11,000 fighters in this war. So if you don't want to do it like this, with small numbers, we end up doing it ourselves and put a lot more Americans at risk.
MARTIN: But I mean, where is the fight against ISIS? The president talks about the fact that the caliphate - the geography, the actual land - has been taken back from ISIS. But it's still a threat. I mean, the entire justification for the U.S. involvement in Syria hasn't been about preventing Assad from killing his own people; it's been about ISIS. So is the U.S. just surrendering that now?
MCGURK: Well, I think as most experts and two inspector generals from the State Department and the Defense Department have said just last month, this actually isn't over - that Americans are not fighting; we're not taking casualties; we're not spending that much money; we have a big coalition supporting us. So our investment is very small. But it's actually - remains quite vital. Just in Syria alone, there's a camp of about 80,000 people, many of them indoctrinated ISIS either fighters or their families. And this is a major problem. And again, the president said, we can just give all those people to Turkey, which is totally unrealistic.
MARTIN: So just briefly - you know the Department of Defense. You understand the White House. You understand these agencies. What's the response right now? When Pentagon officials were caught footed - caught flat-footed about this decision, are people trying to convince the president to walk this back? What does the movement look like?
MCGURK: Well, I can tell they're all scrambling to try to figure out and walk it back, and now you see mixed messages. But the big thing - look. Presidents do a lot of things, but most consequential thing are decisions of war and peace like this. And you just can't make decisions on this haphazard basis after a single call with a foreign leader. This is almost unprecedented. And it increases the risk for personnel out there in the field, and it increases the risk for our country because it'll be harder for us to work with allies. The value of an American handshake really depreciates when you make decisions like this.
MARTIN: Brett McGurk was special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. He served under former presidents Obama and George W. Bush as well as in the Trump administration. Thank you for your time.
MCGURK: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.