We Can’t Destroy NATO ‘For The Kurds’: Jim Talent, James Carafano Break Down The Syria Situation

U.S. Army/Spc. Alec Dionne/Handout

Virginia Kruta Associate Editor
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Former Missouri Republican Sen. Jim Talent and the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano made the case for President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria.

  • “The Trump administration supported the Kurds as much as it could without sacrificing some overriding American national interests.”
  • “It would have been irresponsible for Trump to leave them in a conflict zone where they were not authorized to fight.”
  • “If we go to war with [Turkey] over that, we would basically destroy NATO. We can’t do that for the Kurds.”

“We would basically destroy NATO, and we can’t do that for the Kurds,” Talent told the Daily Caller during a phone interview, arguing that a long-term multi-lateral alliance should take precedent over the U.S. getting involved in what was ultimately a longstanding regional dispute over the border between Syria and Turkey.

“I think the Trump administration supported the Kurds as much as it could without sacrificing some overriding American national interests,” Talent continued. “Without a commitment, formal or informal, to defend the Kurds against the Turks — and nobody’s claiming we made that commitment — without that, America is entitled to tend to its own interests. Which is, by the way, what the Kurds were doing.”

Talent, who now serves as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Institute, went on to say that he believed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have invaded northern Syria, even if Trump had allowed troops to remain in the area.

“I think he called Trump up and said, ‘I’m going in.’ I don’t think the Americans were preventing him from doing that,” Talent said. “I think he — if we had left them in there, I assume Turkey would have made some effort to deconflict them, in other words to find out where their locations were and not to harm them, but that wouldn’t have stopped the invasion.”

Talent pushed back on critics who have insisted that the American forces were the only thing preventing Erdogan from authorizing the invasion, adding, “You can use the Americans as a trip-wire, if you want, and I don’t mean that to sound as harshly as it did probably. But the only way it’s a trip-wire is if you say to him, look, since we have American troops in the area, if you attack, we will take that as an attack on the United States and we will respond appropriately.”

But even that move, Talent noted, posed a risk for the president. “So sure, if Trump had been willing to say, ‘An attack on northern Syria is an attack on the United States and we will respond militarily, yeah, Erdogan would have taken that into account. But that’s threatening war with Turkey, and even his opponents haven’t said Trump should have done that,” he said.

For that reason, Talent argued, President Trump made the right call in pulling American operators back from that area. “What did we have 50 or 100 special operators? I think it would have been irresponsible for Trump to leave them in a conflict zone where they were not authorized to fight and they didn’t have enough numbers to make a difference if they were authorized.”

Talent provided additional details of the complex history in an op-ed published Thursday by National Review, clarifying the reasons the Kurds chose to stand with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS:

The Kurds are tough fighters and were indispensable in supplying the ground component against ISIS. They had their own reasons for doing it, of course. Apart from not wanting to become victims of ISIS themselves, the Kurds are a stateless people and they have been trying to carve out a self-governing enclave for themselves in Syria or Iraq or Turkey or wherever they can get it. The success of the war against ISIS, and the prominent role of the Kurds in the effort, raised at least the prospect of such an enclave in northern Syria.

Talent went on to argue that the U.S. had attempted to thread the needle by offering — on multiple occasions — to implement joint patrols with Turkey along the disputed border region, thus preventing clashes at the border and keeping the focus on retaining the captured ISIS fighters and preventing the resurgence of a caliphate.

Erdogan, Talent explained, was not receptive to this plan because he believed it gave the Kurds too much power.

Recep Erdogan was impatient, to say the least, with the American negotiating position. Erdogan is no fool, and he was aware that the Kurds were developing a significant measure of de facto control in northern Syria. Turkey and the Kurds have a long and checkered history, and Erdogan is as opposed to Kurdish separatism and statehood as the Kurds are in favor of it.

Talent made the case again Thursday in a brief interview with St. Louis-based radio host Marc Cox on FM News Talk 97.1.

The Caller also spoke with the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano — Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy — and he added some insight with regard to relationship between the United States and the Kurds.

“Critics say the United States abandoned our allies, but our relationship with the Kurds was never an alliance,” Carafano explained, calling it more of a “partnership” with a stated goal — namely getting rid of ISIS’ caliphate. “Trump made it clear that we were not going to be doing any nation building, it was a very transactional relationship.”

The border dispute between the Turks and the Kurds, Carafano said, pre-dated the rise of the caliphate — and once the caliphate was out of the way, it once again became a focus for both parties.

“It’s also wrong to say that we’re abandoning them,” he added, pointing out the fact that the U.S. was maintaining a base in southern Syria and had sent Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to negotiate a ceasefire — even though American forces were not directly impacted. Those negotiations and the “pause” in hostilities allowed the Kurds to escape the contested region without being forced to execute “a fighting withdrawal.”

Carafano concluded by responding to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claim that Trump had effectively given Russia a foothold in Syria, saying, “Syria has been in the Russian orbit since the Cold War. It’s laughable to say that we gave Russians a foothold in Syria, they never left Syria,” he explained. “That this somehow improves Russia’s position — the map tells a different story.”