As President Trump defends his decision to pull away some U.S. troops from Syria's border with Turkey, the president's former envoy for the fight against the so-called Islamic State is raising alarms about how potentially destabilizing the move can be for the region.
Brett McGurk, who resigned from Trump's national security team in December and also served in the Obama and Bush administrations, tells NPR that Trump making such a drastic announcement shortly after speaking with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned a vital foreign policy decision into a potential crisis.
"Presidents do a lot of things, but the most consequential are decisions of war and peace like this, and you can't make decisions on a haphazard basis after a single call with a foreign leader," McGurk says on NPR's Morning Edition on Tuesday. "This is almost unprecedented."
Trump's decision to give Turkey more room to operate at the border contradicts recommendations from top officials in the Pentagon and the State Department. It's also raising concerns that a Turkish invasion into northern Syria could endanger U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, leave thousands of jihadist prisoners unguarded — and even lead to a new strengthening of the Islamic State.
There are just about 1,000 American troops in Syria now, but they are supporting a critical ally in the U.S. fight against ISIS: the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes some 60,000 Christian, Arab and Kurdish fighters.
If American troops are removed, the fear is that Turkey's military will move in.
Turkey considers the Kurdish separatist fighters to be terrorists, since they have been linked to attacks on the government in Turkey.
If Turkey does launch a military operation into northeast Syria, American-backed SDF forces will be left to fend for themselves against Turkey.
"So when you say, 'We're going to allow Turkey to come in and fight the force we helped build,' it makes it very difficult for us to even stay at all," McGurk tells NPR.
Gen. Mazloum Kobani Abdi of the Syrian Democratic Forces has a dire assessment. He tells NPR on Tuesday that he worries the troop withdrawal would trigger an attack by Turkey that could lead to "ethnic cleansing."
"The Turks are going to attack. And they've been preparing for a long time," Kobani Abdi says, speaking through his own interpreter on NPR's Morning Edition. "The Turks, doing their invasion, they're going to penetrate the border, they're going to invade, and they're going to take apart Syria soil or Syrian territory. And in the border area, there is millions of people who are living there."
"And the Turkish are going to target the Kurdish communities especially and they are going to do ethnic cleansing to them and they are going to change the demography," Kobani Abdi says.
Trump says he will punish Turkey if it does anything "off limits." And he says he's preserving U.S. military options by calling for American troops to leave the Syrian border. In defending his decision, Trump tweeted that the U.S. "can always go back & BLAST!" if the Islamic State regroups.
"Actually, you can't," McGurk said in response to the president's tweet. "Who is going to sign up with us? Who is going to fight with us?"
Earlier this year, the Kurdish-led SDF, with the backing the U.S., announced the territorial defeat of the so-called ISIS caliphate in Syria. The years of fighting claimed the lives of more than 11,000 SDF fighters — and at least six Americans are reported to have died in the conflict in Syria.
It would be a more dangerous battle for U.S. troops, McGurk says, if American troops lose the allies they trained and are forced to take on the Islamic State alone.
"If you don't want to do it like this, with small numbers, we end up doing it ourselves and put a lot more of our fighters at risk," he says.
Trump says his decision to leave the Kurdish fighters in Syria is in step with his campaign promise to address "endless war" in the Middle East. But McGurk and other critics say that abandoning an important U.S. ally could hurt American credibility in the region. And other world leaders are following closely, he adds.
"The Russians are listening to this. The Iranians are listening this. This Assad regime are listening to this," McGurk says. "It increases the risk for personnel out there in the field, and it increases the risk for our country because it will be harder for us to work with allies. The value of an American handshake really depreciates when you make decisions like this."