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Trump's Syrian Border Withdrawal Leaves Allies Nervous


This week, President Trump repositioned U.S. forces away from a part of northern Syria along the border with Turkey. That move paved the way for Turkish invasion of the region and left U.S.-supported Kurdish fighters there feeling betrayed. It was also the latest example of the president treating American partners around the globe dismissively in a very public way.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They didn't help us in the Second World War. They didn't help us with Normandy.

PFEIFFER: That was President Trump speaking this week about the Kurds. And here he is talking in July about Afghanistan's efforts to win the war against the Taliban.


TRUMP: I could win that war in a week. I just don't want to kill 10 million people.

PFEIFFER: In both cases, the president's words unnerved allies who are locked in long wars in which they depend on U.S. military help. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre joins me in the studio. Greg, thanks for coming in.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey. Sure thing, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Your reporting has been looking at a common thread between these two examples of President Trump disparaging U.S. partners. What is the shared connection?

MYRE: Well, in both these cases, with the Kurds and in Afghanistan, Trump wants to reduce or end the U.S. military involvement in these wars. And he's really put both of them at risk. The Kurds feel very vulnerable, and the Afghan government also feels very vulnerable.

PFEIFFER: Are there other cases of this, similar cases besides these two?

MYRE: Right. I mean, you can certainly look at Ukraine as well. This is a place that Russia invaded five years ago, and it's still there. Ukraine needs U.S. weapons. And the president suspended these weapons shipments temporarily in the summer. And that, of course, has become part of this much larger controversy engulfing the president. Trump also told Ukraine's new untested President Zelenskiy to get together with Russian President Vladimir Putin to solve your problem. So that's left the Ukrainian leader feeling very isolated as well.

PFEIFFER: And all these decisions have come in the past couple of months. So what are the other factors in why President Trump is acting this way towards U.S. allies now?

MYRE: So we don't know exactly, but there's a number of factors to consider. His national security aides have turned over at a very high rate throughout his administration. And a number of those who expressed fairly strong opposition to moves like this are gone, perhaps most notably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned over the prospect that the U.S. might withdraw its troops from Syria. So the president is now facing less opposition and fewer constraints from within his own administration.

Now, we should note that these are long-standing Trump goals to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East, to get NATO and other countries to pay more for their security. And, you know, here's the thing. A lot of these ideas are pretty popular, and even many Democrats will subscribe to them. I spoke with Stephen Walt, who teaches at Harvard University. And he said these recent episodes seem to sum up the president's approach to foreign policy.

STEPHEN WALT: He occasionally has had good instincts, but he pursues these very objectives in the worst possible way, in ways that don't yield the objective he's after, alarm other countries, make us look like we're sort of running foreign policy by whim and by tweet.

PFEIFFER: Greg, all these issues involve the U.S. military. But it's rare for military leaders to express their opinions publicly, at least when they're active military. Do you have a sense of how they feel about these moves?

MYRE: Yes, we do because a number of former officers are speaking out. And they're particularly upset about the U.S. stepping aside in Syria. One notable case is Joe Votel. He was the general leading Central Command, which is responsible for all the U.S. forces in the Middle East, including Syria, until his retirement in March. And this week, he called Trump's move an abandonment of our Kurdish partners. And he said it could undo five years of fighting against the Islamic State. And Votel and others feel that the operation in Syria against the Islamic State was a big success at a relatively low cost. And they're very concerned that the Islamic State could reemerge.

PFEIFFER: How are U.S. allies in all these places responding?

MYRE: Well, I think there's a lot of disappointment and a sense of being vulnerable and unsure what comes next. I think with both the Kurds and the Afghan government, they feel decisions are sort of being made over their heads, and they're going to be left in the lurch. And again, with Ukraine's President Zelenskiy, he was elected to end the war with Russia. And he felt this great need to have strong American support as he pursues that. But he's already feeling compromised. And now, as he tries to deal with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, someone who's always looking for weakness and vulnerability, the Ukrainian president is feeling in a pretty tough position.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.

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