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 here, in London. Thank you, Andrew. Thank you, Roula.