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tv   Former Special Envoy to Defeat ISIS Brett Mc Gurk on National Security ...  CSPAN  October 22, 2019 5:39pm-6:58pm EDT

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stand on free on the former president of brazil? >> education. our kids are being left behind and in education the government tells you that you have to do this and do that, but no funding available. and then the taxpayers have to come up with it. >> voices from the campaign trail, part of c-span's battleground states tour. >> russia is working on talks between the leaders of syria and turkey after u.s. withdrawal from syria and turkey's advance into the northern part of the country. brad mcgirk for the coalition to defeat isis and two other mideast policy experts spoke at the foundation for defense of democracies regarding how president trump's decision will impact the region as well as its implications for u.s. national security. mr. mcgirk served in this position under presidents obama and president trump from 2015 to 2018.
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>> welcome, everyone. i'm jonathan chancer, senior vice president at the foundation for defense of democracies. i am pleased to well in you to today's event marking the release of "shatter the nations. isis and the war for the caliphate." a warm welcome to those tuning in via c-span or live stream. today's program is one of many we host throughout the year. for more information on our work or our areas of focus we encourage you to visit there, you can find out the latest analysis and subscribe to receive information on the latest research, projects and experts. this event is hosted by fdd's center on political power which seeks to from moat understand g seeks to promote diplomatic strategies to defeat threats against the united states and while advancing american influence. many of our members know that fdd is a non-partisan policy
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institute and we take no foreign government funding or corporate funding and we never will. we are glad to be joined today by a distinguished audience of diplomats and representatives from congress, the department of state, the pentagon and active military and experts from the policy community and of course, the media. we encourage guests both here and online to join us in today's conversation on twitter @fdd. by way of housekeeping, today's, vent is on the record. it is being live streamed and recorded. so please silence your cell phones now. on a personal note, i'd luke to first congratulate mike on his terrific new book. for those of who you who have not read it "shattered nations "qwest is"nations" gripping of the war with isis and you will see the underworld of the isis support network and read to the end and you'll find yourself grinding your teeth as
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mike recounts his brush with the suicide car bomber in the battle to reclaim iraq. for all of you today, please grab a copy of the book after today's panel if you have not already done so. while he does not say so explicitly in the book, mike confirms much of what we've been saying here at fdd about the government of turkey. in this book you will hear about the illicit oil traders and antiquities middlemen from turkish soil. mike confirms what we've long known about the 565-mile border between turkey and syria. the erdogan govern deliberately allowed that border to remain porous as thousands joined the jihad. it did not simply exacerbate the crisis in syria. in some ways it created it. this, of course, raises troubling questions about the recent decision by president donald trump to stand aside and allow for the turkish military to invade northern syria.
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here at fdd our scholars engaged in a robust debate about a range of issues. the majority here, although not all of us, but the majority believe this was a strategic mistake. speaking only for myself, i believe the decision was tantamount to a green light for the turkish military to engage in a harmful and dangerous operation in northern syria, it was also an abandonment of the kurdish partners and the decision to turn on them is something other american allies and partners in the middle east will not soon forget. of course, it's fair to argue that the affiliation with the ypg was a mistake from the first place. officials from the obama administration and i suspect brad mcgirk would possibly pus g back on this, assertion. with war crimes, cease-fire violations and assad regime advances, one gets a sense that new dangers lurk.
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so in addition to addressing the key points in mike's book, today's conversation promises to cover a lot of ground. moderating today's event is vivian solama and she's worked as a correspondent with vast experience in the middle east. she's served as ap's baghdad bureau chief from 2014 to 2016 at the height of isis' blitzkrieg across iraq and syria. she published a children's book about a young boy's family who was forced to flee. and she covers the white house for the wall street journal. vivian, over to you. >> thank you so much. >> so it's great to be here including with all these distinguished gentlemen, two of whom i crossed paths with in the middle east. mike and i covered the arab string together and brad and i met in iraq and i had the pleasure of meeting bill today. so it will be a great conversation for sure.
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we are here, obviously, celebrating mike's book and in case you haven't heard, and it's a bit of a timely discussion. syria is in the news today and so you don't have a better collection of people to talk about it and you may have noticed i was staring at my phone during the introduction because my colleague who is literally sitting in the cabinet room just alerted and president trump announced he's willing to keep troops in syria to protect oil. so you never know what the news is going to bring of the day, so obviously, it's a fast-moving story. a lot of moving parts and so, we really want to ask these gentlemen to kind of take us from the beginning, get a, you know, a brief background on how we got to this point and then we can dissect what's been happening right now, and i'm sure a lot of you are interested in that, and so, mike, we'll start with you again.
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congrats on the book. i'm happy for you. maybe a brief recap about how all of the reporters got, and what had taken place in the civil war with regard to isis and some of the various allies that we have there. >> so, i actually had a big fight with my editor writing the book because they were saying this is a book about isis, start with isis, and i insisted on starting with egypt in the arab spring because that really is the background for this. so is the iraq war, but if you remember in 2011 when the arab spring protest started in egypt and in siria, the obama administration was wiendzing down and the u.s. engagement in iraq and the protests were supposed to be the new way forward for america to engage with the middle east. the protesters were chanting american ideals and they were getting political support from the u.s. government and they were organize being ing on the
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twitter, google, androids and e phones and there was this moment that vivian and i covered when we actually first met in 2011 in egypt that everything felt -- the protesters on the street felt connected with american news viewers here who were not just watching the protests on social media and also engaging with them and liking the tweets and sharing the facebook posts and to me it captured this obama first-term mindset that we can all sit at our computers and laptops and like our way to a better world and obviously, that wasn't the case, and the reason that we all ended up in syria, to answer the question is because that's where the arab spring dead ended and there were years of, i think, failed u.s. policy to get to the point where in 2014, syria was the worst person possible in the civil war and from a news perspective and the government focus perspective, we all tried to
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turn away and what happened was obviously, i'm sure the people in this room all know the rem na remnats of al qaeda and iraq used it to gain strength and they went back across the iraqi boarder in 2014 and took the iraqi city of mosul which was a world-changing events. >> brad, you were obviously working with the government at the time. how -- what was the response and the sense on the ground here when all of these events were unfolding and you kind of saw this -- this round of extremism spilling over the border of iraq and syria? >> so i kind of got into this phase of it in 2013 when i was handling the iraq file and i was deeply concerned by the increasing numbers of assassination, murder, suicide bombers, suicide bombers going
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in al qaeda and iraq which migrated to syria and became isis and five a month to 10 to 20, 30, 40, 50 a month and when you have that going on and that was happening in 2013 and it just rips apart any fabric of society and particularly, a fragile one. i was concerned in 2013. we did not have the intelligence overhead. we did not have the information. i testified about this in congress in the fall and all these guys and most of them were foreign jihadis coming from all around the world who were coming into syria and as jonathan said they were coming through turkey. i spent a lot of time in turkey in 2013. look, i love the country of turkey. it's a great country. erdogan is the leader of turkey, but he's not going to be there forever and i think turkey has a brighter future, but let me tell you about the conversations in 2013. why was i in turkey a lot in
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2013. a number of reasons and one which was iraqi oil revenue is going to the bank and those of you know why that web a concern with the all of these jihadis are coming in through your country, what are you going to do about this? the answer was, that's the second war. we'll get rid of assad and then those guys. my response was it sounds to me like you're raising baby crocodiles in your basement. eventually you're going to have a lot of big crocodiles. in any event, this kept on going, and mike documents it in his book, which is awesome, you should read it, this war against isis was a vicious, brutal street by
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street war. and no one should be mistaken by that. but january 1, 2014, fallujah falls to isis. it wasn't until the fall of mosul and i was in iraq at the time, and again, it was just hard to know what was going on. i was walking into a meeting with president obama one night, in which i got an urgent call from an iraqi security official that baghdad was falling and it was hard to tell. in any event, in the summer of 2014 is where it was decided we have to have a very concerted effort to push back and that's when we developed a campaign, which i think we'll discuss. but, that was kind of the sweep of it, just starting where i came into it. >> i remember that time when everyone was worried about iraq falling, baghdad falling, because i was in baghdad getting calls saying baghdad has fallen from my editors in new york. actually, i think we're okay for now but there was the fear of it because they were on the edge of the city and it was a very dangerous situation. bill, remind us
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about how isis drew its strength, how it became this powerful so-called caliphate from just an extremist group? >> sure. the islamic state or isis, it just didn't emerge in a vacuum. it was the remnants of al qaeda in iraq, from obviously the iraq war. the u.s. conducted the surge. by 2009 it was driven out of territories in central, northern, and western iraq, that it controlled and it was perceived that al qaeda in iraq, which was also called the islamic state, making it more confusing, was defeated. but they weren't. they went underground. they hustled their forces, they gathered, organized, tens of thousands of fighters from that conflict escaped, and then you had an iraqi government that was corrupt. letting people out of prisons. things of that nature.
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so it was feeding from that but i remember watching a video and i want to say it was late 2011, where i saw al qaeda in iraq, organize a large convoy, and take over the town in anbar province, a town between ramadi and fallujah. i remember saying this is extremely disturbing. we saw this happen for years years later. the islamic state came out of a dispute between al qaeda, between al qaeda central and it was just basically a turf war between baghdad, the now the head of the islamic state and the al qaeda forces in syria, al qaeda wanted there to be separate entities, one in iraq and one in syria. baghdady said no, we should be fighting together. the islamic states, kind of look at them as this might be
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overly simplistic but they are the hardliners of the jihadists. to them it's their way or the highway. the islamic state, if you don't swear you're apostate to them. where as al qaeda, they kept this, let's work with other groups. let's try and work with elements of the syrian insurgency, and it's a more subversive way. they get their hooks in and wind up converting individuals to their cause. but at the end of the day the islamic state came from the failure to defeat al qaeda in iraq, when the u.s. withdrew in by december 2011. the islamic al qaeda in iraq was already reorganizing and starting to conduct small scale attacks by 2012, you had assassinations. you had prison breaks which really helped the group expand and get its experienced kadri back in. then they started the syrian civil war was a major
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boon. they were able to reorganize inside syria. because remember, we actually killed, it was one of the few special forces raids, killed a guy, i think it was in 2007, u.s. conducted a special forces raid in syria. so al qaeda and iraq, didn't just say, let's cross the border. they had an active network there as well and with the syrian civil war breaking out, that really, that was just the match that lit the the withdrawal and the u.s. fire and you couple that with leaving, abandoning, look, there is a lot of talk today that we abandoned the kurds, this isn't the first abandonment. when the u.s. withdrew from iraq, they abandoned kurdish allies in the north. they succumbed to the pre additions of the iraqi government and the popular mobilization forces, militia backed militias. we but we lost this intelligence. >> it was a
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slower ... >> sure. it wasn't policy by tweet with the trump administration. the obama administration had a more clever and deliberate withdrawal but it was a withdrawal and abandonment nonetheless. these were ally that we built up. we say 11 kurds died. hundreds of thousands of iraqis volunteered to fight theis al qaeda in iraq, and died during these fights. >> i want the others to address that point as well, but before we get into that, maybe, mike, could you talk a little bit about the other parties. we keep hearing about the kurds being our allies on the ground right now, but obviously there are a lot of fighting forces that are allied to in us this fight in both iraq and syria. if you could just give us a walkthrough of that. >> as john mentioned in his introduction, you know, one half of the book is focused on isis and how it worked and why people joined it and who they were. and how it was able to fund and support
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itself. the other part of the book is based on years of different forces coming together as the ground force for the u.s. effort against isis. so we had the kurds in syria, it's important to remember they also fight with arab battalions, as part of the sdf, so, you know, turkey has problems particularly with the kurds but that was a multiethnic force in the end, and then in iraq, we had the kurdish ... i was really alarmed actually, a tweet that trump sent last week that showed he didn't understand the difference between the kurds in northern iraq and syria. to not understand that nuance, if you're a regular news consumer, fine, but if you're the commander-in-chief and you're directing this policy i think that's extremely alarming, because the difference is actually vast. >> so the tweet, i assume the tweet you're talking about was when he made
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a reference to iraq going after the kurds in syria. basically conflating the number of different groups and also a number of different incidents. >> and what was so impressive, i thought, the end stages of the war against isis was how many different forces had come together. we had the kurds in northern iraq, and you also had the iraqi military, and in particular, the protagonists are the iraqi special operations forces and their elite battalion into mosul and elsewhere and these guys have been fighting with the americans since 2005. they are the troops that do the raids with u.s. special operations forces and special forces, and do the work of rolling up isis networks. some of the guys i was in humvees with in mosul, had been fighting alongside the americans since 2005. 12 years of almost nonstop war. and i
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remember, just because i think there is a sense now, it was always going to be a disaster. it's something i always kind of feel emanating out of d.c., the obama administration used this line of reasoning to argue that they could not have done better in syria. it was always going to be a mess, and i think people look at problems with them and say it was all going to be a mess anyway. i really don't think that's the case. i remember, just like a little anecdote to show how unique it was, when it did come together, i was with iraqi special forces in a convoy to get to the battle from mosul and we passed through a checkpoint and i got chills down my neck because to imagine that these two sides which had been enemies in the past, were somehow cooperating and the iraqi troops i was with, they were using very bad kurdish to greet their officers, this warm greeting, like welcome to our territory to fight isis, was actually really
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a special moment. and i think we should understand that to kind of grasp the loss of the policy now. >> i want brett to kind of walk us through, addressing bill's point about the withdrawal in 2011, versus what we've seen today, can you take us back to 2011 and how that withdrawal took place versus maybe today you can kind of get us started on the present. how would you compare, or is there a comparison, and, yes, or, no can you explain. >> isis metastasized in syria into the calderon civil war. you had people like speaking to 60 million muslims once a week saying it's your religious duty to pour into syria. i think, where bill and i would agree is the united states needs to be very careful. presidents need to be very careful before they set national security objectives. and when you say in 2011, assad must go, that changes everyone's calculation
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and it created like a fever in the region. and the amount of foreign jihadists and fighters pouring into syria, the amount of weapons and everything else led to a lot of this. and i just don't think we can discount that. when that policy was set, the death toll in syria was less than 2,000 which was tragic but nothing like what we've seen since. i do not think you can compare in any way the syria withdrawal in 2011 to what we're seeing now. it's completely different. i was a private citizen. i was brought back late in the summer to try to salvage an extension of the sofa. i think we could have done an exchange of notes which i supported at the time. no major political faction would stand up. we had a plan for a robust postwithdrawal iraq policy which i don't think fully panned out. just getting
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to where we are now because i think it's important to put it on the table with the time is how we got involved with the syrian kurds. i think mike documents this in his book. if anyone here has been involved in raising an army, and raising coalitions to go fight a brutal, nasty war, it's really hard work. and what we wanted to do, iraq was one thing, iraq was a little easier, extremely difficult but we're working with an army and a government and we had extensive relationships, what we wanted to do in syria was take elements of the syrian opposition and work with turkey and others to build a force that would fight isis. and we invested hundreds of millions of dollars and mike was leading this effort, mike roggio, and you would hear, i have 5,000 men and we're ready to fight.
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great, 5, 000, get them to our base on this date and it would turn out there would be like 20. this happened over and over again, or the forces that we wanted to work with were so riddled with extremists that our military repeatedly said there is no way we can work with these people. this happened repeatedly. we delayed the counterisis campaign for probably over a year. the rocket battle, because we tried every, i've been reading about all of these roads we traveled, we traveled all these road, they are roads to nowhere. so the way we met the syrian kurds was in the battle of cobani. the entire border to turkey was controlled by isis. if you look at a map in those days it was all black. it's surrounded by thousands of isis fighters about to take town. i'll remember this in the fall of 2014. it's going to fall. every
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assessment we had, is going to fall. if that town fell, we have nothing, no traction in syria and we would still have a caliphate today. it was our relationships with the iraqi kurds who called us up, one called me up and some of our military people up and said, hey, we know some of the fighters who are holding out in cobani. there aren't many left. they are surrounded, about to get overrun, we're in touch with them, would you like to be in touch with them? yeah, you're right because we want to try to defeat isis. the fighters in cabani told us they needed an air drop of some weapons and they needed some air support and they still didn't think they could hold out but we organized this through northern iraq, we did the air drop of weapons, which had to go all the way to president obama, and what was most interesting about this is general allen and i kind of organized the cabani effort in turkey, because at the time, the broader pkk turkey conflict was in what the turks call the solution process. it was in a process of talks, and the turks
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kind of knew the ypg. leader of wpg, the political umbrella i think mike was in turkey, we supplied the battle through turkey. so there is a lot of history here, and even after the cabani battle that lasted 4-5 months it was a turning point against isis. the death toll for isis, i don't want to get into but it was devastating in that battle. but even then, we said, okay, you guys stay in cabani, we're going to try to work with the syrian opposition >> you have these guys saying and it just didn't work. they are all bad news. >> this is the fact of the matter. there was an election in turkey in 2015 in which the largely kurdish but it's an umbrella party, hdp, did better than erdogan expected and he canceled those elections and
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the pkk turkey war 2015 that's when it got complicated. much of this has to do with erdogan's internal politics. what we did with turkey, we'll do everything with you to protect your border, we can do joint operations, all sorts of things to protect your border. let me give one more antidote because after the battle of cabani, there is a town to the east, which the turks are now attacking, these are towns no one has heard of. this town was the main supply route for isis. it's on a highway that goes right to raqqa. flatbed trucks, fighters, weapons, munitions, the border was wide open and mike documents this. he was there. that board crossing had
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to be shut if we were -- as soon as one became the sdf took to law beyond, the turks sealed the border with a wall, so there's a lot of history here that has to be gotten right. we would not have defeated isis had we not taken these steps. and even after that, we told these guys, stay there, we're going to work with the fsa and try and go that route and simply there was no traction, nothing there to work with. >> i see mike wants to say something. >> you asked about the distinction between the kurds. the kurds in syria are diverse. but the kurdish political party and militia that controls the areas that
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the u.s. was working in, in syria, are a branch of the pkk in turkey. the pkk in turkey is a separatist group that's labeled a terrorist organization by the united states government and by turkey, and they have had on and off insurgency in southeastern turkey since the 1980s which is rooted in the fact that the kurds in turkey like in syria, iraq, and iran have been historically repressed. so that's the root of all of this that the u.s. will have to deal with when they start working in the region. i actually met the ypg, the kurdish militants in syria in late 2013. this is before anybody was fighting isis except them. and i got a call, you know, the civil war is like fading from the headlines, in the u.s. and syria, and the arab spring is dead. we just had the rabat massacre in cairo and the counterrevolution, and assad had just launched his first known chemicals weapons attack and obama had refused to enforce the red line he had laid out. so in this sort of period, the kurds started
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fighting in extremist group that would eventually call itself isis, so they were already fighting isis by the time the u.s. got interested. this is before mosul. but when i went out to meet them, it was clear that they are both a pkk franchise and something distinct. every time you go into a wpg headquarters you see a larger than life-size photo of the leader of the pkk, who was in an island prison off the coast of turkey. i asked one of the founding members of the ypg, i told him, every time i go to washington, i get question, what is the relationship between the ypg and pkk? what should i tell the next senator who asks me? they said, i spent 15 years on in iraq where the pkk leadership is based and when the war in syria started i came to syria and i started the ypg. a simple thing for him but at the same time, the ypg
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during that same trip, i met, like rank and file members of the ypg and some were just farmers, who had literally enlist add many or two previously. had never held a weapon before. so you had this kind of difficult relationship with turkey from the beginning but also the fact that it wasn't exactly the pkk either. that's the contradiction in the policy, that was tough to iron out. and just to kind of add to brett's point about turkey, so much of what i'm seeing now in the debate about what's happening in trump'sough to iro out. and ju so much of what i'm seeing now in the debate about what's happening in trump's move this conflict between the turks and the wpg because of the pkk connections was inevitable. it's really important to remember that, until the 2015 election, june 2015, i lived in istanbul for five years this election was obscure, it was a turning point for me for all the turks that i know. it's the moment that turkey began it's really quick slide to what happened was, erdogan and the pkk government had been in talk with the pkk. there was an
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openness with the population in turkey and they were hosting ypg leadership to discuss, maybe they could be some sort of alliance or have an understanding in syria again. the kurdish led political party in turkey won more than erdogan expected in that election and they denied him an absolute majority and he saw this in his way of seeing the world as some sort of offense, or like a grave insult and from a political calculation he understood if they continued to get that share of votes in elections, that he was going to be in big trouble because he does not command a majority of the population. he's never gotten in parliamentary elections more than 50% of the vote, or not in recent years anyway. so that was one of the launch pads for turkey, all of a sudden, restarting the war in southeastern turkey with the pkk and then these relationships with the ypg deteriorating. we just need to keep in mind so much of this is rooted into turkey's own slide towards dictatorship. there was a point when erdogan was
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willing to work with these groups and there could have been with more u.s. effort from the top level, you know, a way for turkey to work with them again. erdogan, the government shot down a russian fighter jet, i think in 2015 or 2016. now they are seen as allies. they do have the ability to come to term with groups that they have been opposed to before. >> that last point, that's what we didn't calculate. we look at 2015 and say, prior to 2012, the turks were working with them, talking to them now, there was no settlement so there was really no preparation that this could change on a dime. we have to remember about the pkk, it's a radical marxist group. a friend of mine basically compares them to maoists. they oppress women and children into military service. we aren't talking about the iraqi kurds, the kdp kurds that are our real allies. we're talking about something different, and not every german soldier was a nazi yet they fought for the germ government
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so we have to keep that, individual soldiers and their stories, when they are fighting for a group that's pushing an ideology, we have to keep that in context as well. >> do you think our alliance, mike, please jump in, do you think our alliance somehow upset the chemistry, because you're saying, that turkey obviously views the pkk, they see them as an existential threat to their country. >> i mean, they had, >> somehow disrupt the chemistry of the region. >> yeah, i think so. and i think that you know, again, that we had to make that calculation, nothing was settled. so they could always turn, and, at some point i do think that turkey started looking at the u.s. alliance with the ypg/pkk as a threat to it. i mean, we've seep relations between the u.s. and turkey deteriorate over the last several years. and it's become more of a rivalry than a nato partnership at this point. and i think that erdogan and his kadri definitely view the
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u.s. arming, support and political recognition of the ypg as a significant threat to its national interests. >> i want you both to comment because i want to get to the present, too. >> i just have a quick point to make. you made the nazi comparison saying anyone fighting for the i would just point out, i really want to be clear, a franchise of the pkk in syria, they do have different aims so someone fighting for the ypg in syria is fighting to get isis out of their territory and they are trying to find some level of autonomy. they are not exactly fighting the pkk's war in turkey although there is some cross pollination of the groups as i mentioned. >> to respond to that, yes, absolutely. i think one of our mistakes was we made no effort, or none that was visible to get the ypg to denounce and to
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reject the maximumist ideology, to become more palatable to the turkish government. there are individuals who aren't just not all of the fighters are rabid pkk followers, but when they push them in that direction, you she is have to remember when someone joins the military, we saw this with al qaeda in iraq, they were very adept at doing this. the taliban once you get people in your ranks they work hard at the indoctrination so that farmer who comes in today may just be fighting for freedom and autonomy and to get rid of the islamic state but they are also sitting there listening to, you know, to the sermons, whatever you want to call it, indoctrination by the pkk, you know, handlers as well. >> so the forces here grew to 60,000 syrians. that doesn't just happen. if these are just a bunch of radical maoists people, it wouldn't just happen. we've had multiple u.s. personnel rotate through syria, they all come out with the same story. and even the distinction
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was drawn by a senior turkish official, they are syrian, when the major turkey pkk conflict was going on in southeast syria, the ypg kept fighting isis going south. they weren't crossing the board. the facts really matter here, we've had no cross border attacks. we've had no evidence at all of any weapons provided to these guys making their way into syria. in fact, we didn't provide them any weapons until the trump administration came in and let me just, one thing, when we had a transition to the trump administration, when they came in, we had a very professional transition. i met with mike flynn during before the inauguration, we laid everything out. we were about 30 kilometers north of raqqa. a big question was how are we going to do raqqa? and we paused. and president obama passed that decision over to trump. because there were three
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ways---four ways to do it. let the russians do it. we could do it on our own, which is going to be very costly. we could arm the ypg, a decision that had not been made yet, or we could develop a plan with turkey which had been developed in the obama administration, which would have require tens of thousands of american troops and a hodgepodge of opposition groups and turkish military so we looked at that whole thing and paused for almost 4 1/2 months and did a massive strategic review and we sent our best military planners to turkey to plan the operation with the turks. we literally, every stone was unturned. at one point, a senior military official went to a parade ground we're going to see the turkish opposition force that was going to work with us to take raqqa, and nobody was there. because the cleric that these guys answer to have determined the night before don't work with the americans. our military people did not want to embed with many other
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groups the turkey wanted us to work with. this was with mattis. have to take raqqa and we had to take raqqa because of the threats out of syria at the time against as were like super blinking red lights. the options were, mr. president, you can let the russians take it. we can arm the ypg. and have the sdf do it which would require very few additional u.s. forces, or we have a plan. >> which would potentially irritate turkey. >> yes. this is some tension with turkey. or we have plans to develop with strict which we are about 15,000 american troops, maybe more. the president made the decision in about two seconds. so again, this is been like looked at repeatedly. in terms of diversifying the force, diversifying the political structures, i think an awful lot about was tried. the resources were very meager, particularly under president trump. we put a full-time
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ambassador on the ground and we did everything with turkey to make sure their border was protected. >> that's a perfect setup for getting to the present. obviously, president trump campaigned on the fact that he was going to withdraw u.s. troops not just from syria, but all the wars. he says he doesn't like endless wars. those of you just tuning into syria news may not realize that it's withdrawal 2.0 at this point because he tried to december. that's when defense secretary mattis resigned. brett followed him out because they did not agree with decision. that was walked back and now we're doing it again. i want you from all of you about just the events of the last few weeks, how has this played out and where do you see this going. we only have five minutes am hoping we can go around before we take questions of course. i'm sure all of you can also jump in because we're going to be talked about this a lot i'm sure in the q&a. if each of you can give us a two-minute answer on how you see this playing out.
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>> that's a great question. i wish i had the answer to that. dealing with the president who does policy by twitter, and he's very mercurial. he seems to make decisions on a whim or a phone call with a foreign leader. now i'm hearing that might keep some u.s. forces. they will launch operations from iraq. but that all could change tomorrow. he could pull troops out of iraq within the next 6 months. i can't predict where u.s. policy on iraq or in syria is going to go forward or afghanistan or any other place. it's a very tumultuous time for foreign policy. i can't imagine what it's like for someone like you working in the white house, or working as a reporter at the white house. i do think that trump is, he campaigned on
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withdrawing troops, u.s. troops from afghanistan and from syria, now he is taking on the mantra of in the endless wars which years ago was a hard left or it was a statement made by obama, obama administration officials. we are looking, i think he's to he's true to that. i think he wants to withdraw. i i think he's doing it, he's encountering a lot of opposition within his own administration. they don't want to carry out the policies that he is trying to lay forward, but he is the president of the united states and he is the ultimate say in what's going to happen. so i suspect you're going to see i think this is just the beginning. >> mike, how do you see this
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playing out? >> i don't think anybody here microphone. >> i don't think anybody thought that u.s. troops should remain indefinitely in syria, but i do think there is a sense that they need to remain long enough to stabilize parts of iraq and syria where isis had been strong. i reported about a year ago and it's continued that isis is launching insurgent style attacks across even northern iraq right now. they are assassinating local leaders, stuff that brett mentioned earlier that preface the isis writes in the first place in 2014. the same situation in syria. "new york times" had reported there was up to 18,000 isis fighters across syria and iraq. the u.s. presence in syria was designed to roll up isis networks to the
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extent possible and most importantly to train local forces and reconstitutes them after the losses of 10, 000, they say, in the war against isis to build to that job in cells in the long term. as understand your special operation forces and green berets were in effort with ypg counterterrorism units to train them to do this on their own one day. so just pulling the plug on all that before has a chance to succeed, i think is a big mistake here. not planning at all for the withdrawal to the point where you see u.s. troops retreating and turkish backed forces firing on them as they retreat, which i had to read that three times make sure i was reading it right, is just a picture of chaos. rather than the sort of near to midterm plan of stabilize these areas and is forced isis does not resurge, we're seeing a really chaotic worst-case scenario
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withdrawing chaos. >> i've been pretty public about this. late last year we had a force posture that was not just arbitrary. it was specific designed to make sure we had control. it was pretty stable, we gotto go into it all the time. when you and us to do what you're going to leave that changes everybody sky commissioner putin and erdogan knows without and you cut the force by 50%. it limits what we can do. when he basically give a green light and i'm sorry i can't read the statement. if you go to the history that's exactly what happened. we pulled off the border and you just do and that assessment. who are in the ranks of the turkish backed opposition forces? we know these guys and we knew this would be very bad. the whole pression on the northeast and as the of which are arabs, kurds, the whole night is coming under tremendous pressure. we've given up always positioned on the perimeter and i frankly find it troubling what president trump, i didn't see
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it as said we're going to stay for oil, you just don't talk like that. a president should not talk like that, i'm sorry. i worked this issue with secretary tillerson who know something about oil and is not possible for us to exploit those oil resources unless we want to be oil smugglers and that's the something the united states i think it is into. i'm not sure what he has in mind. i've seen this movie before. it's like the second version of the movie, it is worse than the we were not keep a small price first. and some with abandon host of our positions. we are bombing as we leave, the population, so different from the iraq war, this population, not just the kurds from its the arabs, across all northeast three, those of most permissive postwar if i met i've ever seen at our special forces military consisting postwar fibrous all over the world that said that repeatedly. they've never seen a more permissive environment than this. city after city, town after town, future cities, thousands of people all supported our president. that's why we were able to work and
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that of of it and keep a very light footprint. now we are leaving and tomatoes are being thrown out of vehicles with an american flag on it. i think it is shameful. i think it will get worse, and just finally i know i'm over time the op-ed i wrote after resign to hard truth. trump wants us out of that. we don't accept that if you get the geometry will find yourself in a worse position. second, turkish backed opposition forces and there's a lot of patriotic syrians and the opposition that i know, but in terms of fighting forces and the ranks of which the turks want to use, they're not partners of the united states of america. you can now see that on tv. third, the sdf has to remain intact, otherwise it all unravels and opens a vacuum in which isis reconstitute. we are now seeing that. i do in a scramble to try to figure something out. i have great respect for the diplomats and
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military officials trying to figure out this maelstrom but it is concerning any think it will get worse. >> food for thought. i have 1 million more questions but i will share and invite you all to ask your question. raise your hands. we have people going around with the mics. i think they are going around in the back. can you introduce yourself and then ask your question? >> i am a reporter from the national interest. last week at this think tank that is kind of associate with turkey's ruling party, mike duron was talking about how the u.s. used to support turkey against the pkk, how u.s. saudi arabia, and turkey on natural alliance and now we're turning to the natural pattern of it seems very different from the cold
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war but would any of you want to elaborate or respond to his claims? >> yes. i debated mike on this in entelligence square new york. mike is an old bush white house colleague of mine. i spent a lot of time in the middle east in the last decade, and the idea of an israel turkey saudi alliance i think is very far-fetched. david talked to the israelis about erdogan, talk to the saudis about erdogan, that would be a very, that like a real square peg round whole problem i just don't think that's realistic. i will leave it there. next
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question. >> i am with the center for security policy. we have all heard president erdogan talking, declining over the the last several years his declaring over the the last several years his intent to reconquer lands of the ottoman empire. where would you all expect to see them turn next? do you think, do it if you think that erdogan has his sights set in what else besides northeastern syria? >> i don't want to hog the stage, but look what is doing in the eastern mediterranean, look at the maps of syria that he showed in september, and those are the maps he has shown for some time. in the mosul battle, he insisted on being part of the mosul battle. that would've upended the entire battle. we have seen anything like it since the vietnam war or world war ii. we needed to put u.s. forces on the road to make sure turkey would not come in the
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battle. he is national security zone in his might go some aleppo to mosul. this is not just about the ypg. we have to have our eyes wide open, and not to dismiss their concerns. again, we have to help protect the border but this is not just about the ypg. i would just add, when he says reconquer i would look at the very more rickety influence. the worst and yet processes, whether ricky have say i don't think you'll see a putin style annexation of territory anything like that. >> dave lawlor from axios. this is a question of record having worked with president trump on this issue on the isis, i'm wondering whether beyond dispute that calicut and get out trump any other priorities? was oil something that was raised? was he worried about the future of syria, who's going to control territory? did he worry about announced late
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last summer we'll stay in syria until iran is out. that's a long time. we will stay in syria until the geneva process concludes. that's like a really long time. we are going stay in syria until the end drink a few devices which i think is a very critical interest. i've never heard donald trump to anything like that. in fact, he precipices the russians or anyone else can do with want. when you have the declared u.s. objectives that are never are taken in by the president, you have again and ends ways means mismatch. your means are not jewish and military resources, your soldier fitbit is the political will of the american people and the intent of the president. when it comes to war and peace with americans in harm's way, we have a crisis crisis izaak onto anyone's
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back. that's now happened twice on syria in the last year at a think it's a very serious problem. i've never heard him articulate syria objectives. he talked about defeating isis caliphate. he takes credit for it. but beyond that, i really don't think he has much of a significant concern for the oil thing. it's a complex matter. i worked on this with tillerson. i think he discussed with the present the problems that arise to rethink we can exploit those resources. >> anyone else? >> charles, los angeles, fdd supported. while the oil into has to be kept from isis using it to finance itself, the optics of keeping u.s. troops guarded and the
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circumstances of abandonment does inside cynicism. brett seems to described the sad irony of the death of the beginning of an american troop birth to air spring, to my question. how much should erdogan's and form reliability of his intentions? and second, please comment on abandoning the kurdish ypg pushes them into reconsolidation with the pkk, losing the opportunity for alignment with the u.s. to influence the political change? >> so i guess is the ypg under pressure, that these groups need to merge i guess? are they coming under further pressure? what's the future with them and earnrdogan? is there any hope of things settling down? >> i think the ypg likes things just fine as is. they get the plausible deniability while being a faction of the pkk, it is not directly listed as part of the pkk. that would put them under sanctions with the pkk, listed as a foreign terrorist organization and that would prohibit any support from the united states. i would not see them conducting a merger with the pkk. i'll leave the first question to mike. >> just in terms of the pressure that the kurds in northeastern syria are coming under erdogan, is it in help of any kind of settlement
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between them? >> great question. i would just note, i think the real scenario now we're watching is with the ypg go to the site not a merger with the pkk but assad and by extension russia and iran. what happens when you of this force at work so close with use military all of a sudden having to cooperate with the regime and its russian and iranian allies and maybe even being at their mercy? that's an interesting question to ask now as well, and also i do think if that were to happen, if the assad government is to retake control of these areas, what you would certainly see us is ypg members who are pkk historically, maybe returning back to turkey or to iraq because just from a survival standpoint they fear they will be the subject of crackdowns otherwise. >> is an assad alliance a legitimate alliance for the kurds? >> the ypg, the reason the syrian government was able to hold out is because they worked with the ypg. there's already established alliances. >> they had an understanding since the beginning of the civil war. there are channels and it's like, it's interesting to note we are all from analysis perspective sitting here saying that might be the best case scenario given the chaos. that seems have most potential to spare these areas some turkish mom bartman. turkish bombardment. but with that then comes the return of the state, which as we know where the syrian government has occurred elsewhere in syria we have seen that same sort of tactics festered the air spring into
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first place which is repression, mass arrest, torture, harassment by security forces people of being in these places throughout the war and also any refugees who have come home. >> ust real quick. great question. it's in the hand of vladimir putin because take the town of khobani of 50,000 people, if the turks go to khobani will have an epic humanitarian catastrophe. we are now out of those areas that we make clear we have nothing to do with the safe zone, and erdogan is meeting putin tomorrow. this is what it gets very conflicted because now that we've up early and out where going to hold onto oilfields, i think the russians might very well say to the kurds, we're not going to stop the turks and going into khobani unless the americans leave. i just above russians play this. i channeled russia for some time, and i think this could be pretty nasty. but khobani, at the turks going to khobani we will see a real
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nightmare and it's in the hands of the russians, unfortunately there we are not really at the table anymore. >> we have time for for a couple more questions. >> i'm with the washington i'm with the
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washington times. brett, you mentioned this situation is going to get much worse. can you elaborate on that prediction a bit more, and for the panel, what is the more imminent threat to israel that this situation poses? >> it's been two weeks, we have about 200,000 displaced people. you have isis escaping from prison. i think the ability of the united states to hold the sdf intact, which is critical to mitigating the risk of an isis resurgence, is draining by the day. i just mentioned khobani at these other areas which will be a deal between turkey and russia that would on any insights into. the pressure will also come on iraq. let me
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say this, just in the middle east. i think iraq will come under tremendous pressure. the iranians are facing another nuclear deadline. this can spiral into a broader regional conflict because the iranians under tremendous pressure. i also think they feel an edge on the united states right now as the world sees americans basically ushered out of syria. i think, look for iran to try to poke a little bit. that's expected in the region, if and how we respond will be an open question. the fact that isis caliphate is defeated, we forget what's happening, that's why everybody should read mike's book. mike sees the number of foreign terrorist fighters in the area but also the seams in singe are and the enslavement of women and the massacre of men by the thousands. what this organization was doing is just totally beyond the pale and something that america interests and values obligated us to respond to so it's a great question and i think the threats at this stage, there's a very high risk that they will reemerge. i would add while we're considering the politics here, you should remember that trunk trump during his election campaign fear mongered about isis and refugees and muslims and played off the fears of terrorist attacks as part of his political campaign and he played some role in him getting elected so the idea that trump now is declaring that isis is no longer a threat contrary to the opinion of i think most
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experts, i think we should just see that in the context of what he was saying in 2015 and 2016 and how he ended up coming into
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office in the first place. >> we're a little over but one last question right here from my colleague, michael cornyn. >> hi, michael. >> for brett and i'll keep it concise. you're clearly skeptical of the idea of developing and exporting the oil under the syrian kurdish control at this point and president trump has talked about bringing in an american company to do this and
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presumably, the concept is to export it to the krg because there's nowhere else can it can go. you said you looked at this with secretary tillerson. what are the impediments to doing this, what are the technical obstacles in doing this? why do you think this is not a feasible approach? >> again, i was working this with tillerson. i will let him speak to it. he knows something about the subject. i think his phrase was i don't want to quote him but that's not how oil works and oil is owned like it or not by the syrian state. that doesn't mean sdf can't help exploit it and make some revenue off of it but that's smuggling. we did look at, the only way to possibly do this legally would be an escrow arrangement through the
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russians that would loop in the syrian government. in which you would put the resources in some sort of escrow for ultimate development once the civil war concluded. that was possible. the russians weren't really open to that and i think they would be even less so now. but again, maybe their new lawyers but it was just illegal for an american company to go and seize and exploit these assets. this is the problem of not having a national security process. you got have a process before president they things and you would have some deliberation. we don't want that to get in the hands of terrorists and other actors but to say an american company is going to exploit it, that raises serious legal
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implications and i would just add michael, you've been to syria a number of times. we've already given up almost the entire perimeter of northeast syria. we are now going to hold up in fort apache with a couple hundred americans? let's not exaggerate that that gives us an influence over the course of events in syria. that influence has evaporated from the moment trump said leave in december to cutting the force in half and now to cutting the force by another whatever it is. this is not deliberate policy. these are spasms and i don't think they have seriously considered the implications of this. and as we are leaving syria and giving up all this space and territory, to announce that we are just going to stay in an oil field raises all sorts of implications and i think people in the region will read it. so again, don't want these resources to get in the hands of terrorists and others. but maybe trump should have thought about this before he basically made a decision that unraveled the tapestry that had been working pretty well starting last year. >> i'm informed we have a little bit more time so there are more questions to take. yes p.m. may: yes? what's your name? >> and 2017, you
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campaigned for the to hold you said we now so the money was in the so what made you change now to partner with donald trump? one more thing. you know what bothered me since october 16, 2017. you said you're going to watch iraqi tank to roll into carand that was bad. >> i never said such a thing. but let me thank you for your question. and you're talking about the referendum in october 2017. so it's somebody who has worked with kurds for almost a couple decades now. >> to be clear, the referendum in iraq. >> yes. understanding the kurdish and all the different kurdish parties. and a lead up to that referendum, first as u.s. policy you considered policy at the referendum would be a bad idea. and just explain, this is important. all our information was that if the kurdistan region went forward with that referendum, the consequences would be quite serious. the reaction from turkey, iran, the action from arabs what's your n> in 2017, you campaigned for the to hold you said we now so the money was in the so what made you change now to partner with donald trump? one more thing. you know what bothered me since october 16, 2017. you said you're going to watch iraqi tank to roll into carand that was bad. >> i never said such a thing. but let me thank you for your question. and you're talking about the referendum in
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october 2017. so it's somebody who has worked with kurds for almost a couple decades now. from arabs and the action from the iraqi government and our ability to manage all that in the aftermath would be limited. finally as president trump has said, i'm not disclosing
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anything. he was quite clear he's not going to do anything about it. so in the conversations i had with many kurdish officials and they would confirm this, while we recognize the grievances and aspirations, if you go forward with the referendum, but wow is going to be so severe and the united states government under president trump is not going to come in to save the day. that save the day. that was the concern and if anything i think the story and what we're seeing right now demonstrates that was right. back in those days, this is the thing about president trump. he's like an empty vessel that everybody puts their hopes and aspirations into. and they end up being very disappointed but there was a view back then that trump
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will come in and save the day no matter what happens and that was misplaced hope. so i would, i think if you talk with the kurdish officials during the difficult time, and i haven't a very difficult file at that time i was representing u.s. policy. i was very honest about the risks and consequences and that the united states of america would be highly unlikely under president trump to come save the day. >> if i may, again. the united states is routinely abandons its allies and i would argue that we abandon the iraqi kurds during the withdrawal. "the new york times" reported trump had zero interest in keeping us troops in afghanistan keeping u.s. troops in afghanistan area i'm sorry, in iraq back in 2011. there was very little effort that was the point where he abandoned them as he lost our influence inside of iraq area we lost influence with the government, we could mitigate those issues. then you had the rise of isis, then the rise of the iraqi operation mobilization forces who coincidentally went to her cook and served as the spearhead to
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oppress the kurdish forces so these problems just getting started with him. i don't want to defend president trump's decision. he is very rash in how he makes them and ultimately they have very bad results but we're looking at a decade of bad policy here. this didn't just occur in a vacuum.
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>> i think we have time for, i keep on saying this. we have a little bit of time left. >> rory gottman for mike, first. congratulations on the book which is terrific. secondly, can you discuss turkey's role in isis's rise? obviously they turned a blind eye to volunteers coming in but did they, knowingly allowed turkey into syria in your mind? you mentioned antiquities, mentioned the oil. the turks also allow arms to go in from turkey, where the accusations out there west and mark. this also gives me a chance to address something john said in his opening remarks that turkey deliberately helped isis. i helped isis. i don't know i'll ever use that word because i don't know if you can say clearly. there's two points, there's the foremost so the before mosul was open season for folks to come from europe, use the turkish border and enter syria. and it sounds like turkish officials were playing with american officials about it's happening because first the fight is against aside, then it's against these extremists. after 2014, when isis took mcgurk, they also kidnapped a bunch of turkish factions in the city and turkey realized isis is a problem turkey to read but by that
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point it was almost too late. they had isis cells all over turkey. and you had the same criminal organization networks that were smuggling fighters and also oil and artifacts and always have been even before the civil war, it's just the way the turkey approached the war, whether those networks could become unstoppable at some point. i would add the way i think you need to say for sure what you can charge turkey
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with his gross negligence. they had to fight with assad as their priority than the fight with the kurds became their priority. when erdogan was saying last week we are going to syria to destroy terrorism, he's talking about the kurds and the sts, he's not talking about isis and the conflation of that terrorism threat is really a way to show the way turkish policy has been lacking. so either by will or by ability, they have never successfully cracked down on isis networks across the border that allow transit and the fighters and also the black market economy that sort of fueled isis to years thrive. you i have not been to the turkish-syria border in two years so you have to take this with a grain of salt but i imagine they still exist and would continue to be a problem in this new instability. >> mike, what you say is it's also possibly a big reason for president trump's miscommunications with erdogan because he keeps saying i'm going to go in and take care of isis. president trump tweets out, erdogan promises to take care of isis. it's not necessarily isis is isis he's talking about. >> i wonder if it's missing medication because trump seemed to be touting turkish talking points last week where he said pkk is a greater threat. so please check my memory but i think it was something along those lines. i think there's an extent to which there's confusion in the white house judging by the statements, i'm not recording on white house deliberations but will from a what i see pu black market economy that sort of fueled isis to years thrive. you i have not been to the turkish-syria border in two years so you have to take this with a grain of salt but i imagine they still exist and would continue to be a problem in this new instability. >> mike, what you say is it's also possibly a big reason for president trump's miscommunications with erdogan
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because he keeps saying i'm going to go in and take care of isis. president trump tweets out, erdogan promises to take care of isis. it's not necessarily isis is isis he's talking about. >> i wonder if it's missing medication because trump seemed to be touting turkish talking points last week where he said pkk is a greater threat. so please check my memory but i think it was something along those lines. i think there's an extent to which there's confusion in the white house judging by the statements, i'm not recording on white house deliberations but will from a what i see publicly and there's the extent of him being willing to hand this over to erdogan and accept erdogan's frames which are problematic and and not challenged internally by an independent media in turkey. >> i was in the oval office and he said isis learned from the pkk. i think we can take one more question. i don't know where the mic went. we've got two minutes left for real this time. i have a gentleman in the front who has been very kind, help me out. deb, do you want to screen. this young lady has
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not asked the question yet. >> i have three questions so you can answer whatever one you want. the first one is nato and the as-400. anything going on with that and with the future of their role in turkey. syria, we haven't talked much about assad. what's his direction going to be coming up? and on trump, do you think that trump got anything out of this other than just being able to go to the voters and say i'm pulling out troops even though he hasn't? is there anything specific that you think he got from erdogan and is there anything trump can do now to make things better?
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>> so four questions, deb, thanks men. you have one minute, 30 seconds. want. it is lightning round at this point. take whatever ones you want. >> i'll take the one with assad. he's certainly, the russian and iranian bailout of assad was brilliant and one thing we learned in that is that you don't have to fight a counter-insurgency by just being a nice guy. the russians have proven it in the caucus area i think proved it in syria that being volatile can also be effective. i'm not teaching that by any means but that's what we've seen. and i think so assad is reconstituting his forces. i expect the russians and iranians and the iraqi militia's have fought inside along with solo money, inside syria, i think we're going to start seeing them retake areas of in the north and northeast
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as well. so this goes back to a policy issue as well. brett mentioned that the goal originally was to oust assad, that's not happening now and he's back in ascendancy. and if that was our political goal, we should have seen it through. if not, we had to expect outcomes such as this. >> lightning round, you want to address assad or what trump said? >> i think the definition is assad retaking control of the country. and with the help of his allies. i don't think there's any other outcome possible in syria right now. >> i wrote one piece in foreign affairs you can read after i left. we should narrow our goals in syria to the resurgence of isis, i think that's now much harder. and a potential threat to israel that did a lot to help with the israelis, other than that our ability to affect the course of
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events in syria. they're extremely limited and trying to do more, we're going to dig a thanks for joining us everyone. so you know mike is going to stick around to sign copies of his book for those of you who purchased them and
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