Operator: Welcome to the Atlantic Council members and press call, Trump’s Syria withdrawal. Please be aware that each of your lines is now in listen-only mode. We will open the lines for questions following the speaker’s opening remarks.
Please press “star,” followed by the number “1” key on your telephone to ask a question. Questions will be taken in the order that they are received. Please be sure to introduce yourself when asking a question.
I will now turn the call over to the Atlantic Council, who will introduce the call and begin our discussion. Ms. Fontenrose, please go ahead.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Good morning, this Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the regional security program here in the Middle East (Shop) at the Atlantic Council. Welcome and thanks for calling in. We’re here this morning to discuss the latest developments on the border in Northeastern Syria.
As we sit poised to watch whether Turkey chooses to launch an incursion into an area of northern Syria, held by Kurdish-Syrian Democratic forces. President Trump has announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, and we’re interested this morning in talking about the latest statements from policymakers, word from the ground, what is likely to happen next, and the impact of next steps on all players.
Joining me to discuss this, this morning is Ambassador Frederic Hof, distinguished fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East here at the Atlantic Council. He’s also a former U.S. special envoy to Syria and part of the very recent Syria study group that produced the report U.S. in Syria: Why it Matters, which is particularly relevant this morning.
And Jasmine El-Gamal, a nonresident senior fellow with the middle east program’s office here at the council, and Tom Warrick, nonresident senior fellow with the middle east programs, know to many of you all as the former deputy assistant secretary of DHS for counterterrorism.
So I’m going to open up the floor to each of our speakers, starting with Ambassador Hof, for a quick opening comment. We will then move to some questions. After I’ve posed a few questions, we’ll open up the question line to callers. Ambassador Hof, please, over to you.
Fred Hof: Well, thank you, Kirsten, and good morning to all. You know, last week, my colleagues and I on the Syria study released our final repot. Among other things, we recommended the drawdown of U.S. forces in northeastern Syria be halted and reversed.
We warned that the battle against ISIS isn’t over, and while acknowledging Turkish concerns over our Kurdish partner forces and urging the Kurds to refrain from governing in Arab parts of northeastern Syria, we made it clear that a safe zone along the Turkish border should be the result of negotiations, certainly not invasion.
And we urge the U.S. and our coalition partners to keep the Assad regime and Iran out of northeastern Syria to preserve our leverage in the search for peaceful and negotiated political transition in all of Syria.
Our report last week was released during an avalanche of impeachment-related news. Congress took note of our work in a mainly positive manner, but the report and its recommendations were barely noticed, despite a well-attended launch program where Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Mitt Romney gave positive keynote remarks reflecting the bipartisan nature our of effort.
I must say, however, that my colleagues and I despaired about our work having any impact at all. We did expect the administration to study and the president to be brief, speaking for myself.
However, I worry that a presidential endorsement of our report could inspired (reflexive) opposition from Democrats; especially the presidential candidates. As I pondered how to enlist senior Democrats to support what I hoped would be a president endorsement of the Syria study group report.
I had a growing sense of hopelessness as the impeachment crisis continues to (deepen and widen), I thought the prospects were a bipartisan approach to this Syria crisis were all but dead. But now to my surprise and even shock, those prospects had been revived in a manner that frankly I could not have imagined.
(And as a) visceral reaction to a telephone conversation with the president of Turkey, President Trump (has) in a series of tweet, threatening to abandon our Syrian partner forces and obliterate the Turkish economy, he’s actually resurrected the possibility of U.S. bipartisanship on Syria policy.
Obviously this was not his intent; obviously he wants to wash his hands of Syria, notwithstanding unfinished business with ISIS and notwithstanding the desire of the Assad regime and Iran to make themselves the beneficiaries of five years, invested by the U.S. and its coalition partners in northeastern Syria.
But by reacting viscerally, and I must say thoughtlessly, he’s inadvertently created a coalition of congressional Republicans and Democrats willing to stand up and say no; no to precipitous withdrawal, no to the abandonment of partners and no to the gratuitous sacrifice of America’s reputation.
Quite unintentionally, President Trump rescued our report, in my view, from an eternity of gathering dust, and more importantly, revived the prospect of bipartisanship and dealing with Syria.
I’ll conclude by saying that U.S. policy toward Turkey, our coalition partners, ISIS, the stabilization of northeastern Syria, and policy toward the balance of Syria is not settled, administration officials are going to have to work hard to repair needlessly inflicted damage, but at least now, there’s a chance to put the national security of the home team first, in a way that both Republicans and Democrats can support, and frankly 48 hours ago, I had no such hope.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you, ambassador, that’s actually an excellent segue to comments from Tom Warrick.
Warrick: So one of the aspects of this decision obviously is the president’s statement that we are going to be relying on actions of a number of countries he listed, including Syria, Turkey, Iran, Russia and Iraq. One of the concerns that many in the counterterrorism community has (is that) with the countries that he named are not up to the job of presenting terrorist attacks from coming out of Syria.
The area of northeast Syria that’s currently controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces includes a substantial amount of territory that Turkey is not at present, moving into.
Obviously the biggest concern is, if the SDF forces are pulled away from trying to engage and round up the remaining ISIS figures who are still are (largely) in northwestern Syria, in order to defend the Kurdish people in Syria against Turkish military efforts, this is going to have a significant effort at disrupting efforts to prevent ISIS’ resurgence.
There’s a general consensus that ISIS has been carefully planning its comeback, they knew there was going to be a military campaign that the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States and our coalition allies succeeded in eliminating their territorial control, but ISIS’ comeback is a real and serious concern, even if it’s going to take them a couple of years to regroup.
They’ve done it before, they can do it again. The question then is whether our allies are up to the challenge, and certainly that is a major gamble the president is making.
The other part of it is that every bit of experience that we have with Syria indicates that the Syrian government is not going to able to reestablish control in the parts of northeastern Syria that Turkey is not going to be moving into, and this creates one of the most dangerous situations a terrorist safe haven from which ISIS or other terrorists would be able to regroup, plot, train, recruit, use the internet, and otherwise rebuild themselves to pose a threat to the United States and our allies.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you, Tom. Jasmine, please, your comments.
Jasmine El-Gamal: Thank you for having me on the call, and good morning. So I just want to follow up on a couple of things that were already stated. One is about the importance of U.S. diplomatic efforts on these challenges now more than ever, and the other one is about the possible resurgence of ISIS.
On the latter, we know that ISIS thrives on two things in particular, maybe three things in particular. One is a security vacuum, and environment that is unsafe and that is insecure. The other is grievances, obviously whether political grievances or economic grievances, or identity grievances.
And the other one is just general conflict in the region, and we find ourselves now at a moment where all three of those factors exist in the northeast and are being completely aggravated by this sort of back and forth policy that the president keeps announcing over tweets.
One day we’re there to stay, the next day we’re not, and then it happens all over again. And the problem is that it seems to happen often after phone calls with foreign leaders, not after well thought out, well prepared conversations with the president’s own national security team.
So his own national security team will be saying something, he’ll have a phone call with Erdogan and then he’ll do something completely different. Which is important to mention, not just as a criticism of the president, but it’s important to mention that this – his way of conducting foreign policy is extremely destabilizing to our partners on the ground and that needs to change immediately. Our partners don’t (know what) any given day will bring in terms of policy decisions, and so that makes it difficult for them to plan themselves.
I want to highlight just in terms of the human aspect of this, there are 70,000 women and children in our Al-Hawl camp alone in the northeast, as well as about 2,000 foreign fighters, all of whom are held and administered by the SDF, which has neither the institutional capacity to deal with this, or the expertise or the manpower.
Turkey, first on its side has about 2 million refugees that it wants to move out of Turkey; they’ve been very vocal about it and they’ve been very clear that they need help doing so. It is within that environment that ISIS has the opportunity to thrive.
You have 70,000 people on side of the border, 2 million on the other side, who literally don’t know what is going to happen to them tomorrow, and that’s an extremely – that’s great breeding ground for a resurgence of ISIS, because they can capitalize on those feelings of helplessness and anger.
So that’s – so if we go now to the U.S. role and what it can do, so the U.S. has the opportunity now as Ambassador Hof was saying, to have a bipartisan effort to really sit down with our allies and have a sort of renewed diplomatic effort to try to find long term solutions for these problems.
It’s not going to be sanctioning Turkey or threatening Turkey or telling the SDF to stand its ground. It’s going to have to be – there’s going to have to be really taking the lead, rounding our allies together, bringing them together, addressing each of their concerns, and then trying to find a way to address those concerns.
And I’ll just close with a couple of suggestions in terms of what we should be doing with the U.S. in the leading role, and (not necessarily in the means) having a U.S. presence on the ground to compliment our diplomatic efforts. Otherwise, we have no leverage and we have to skin in the game and no one has any incentive to listen to us.
Three things that we could be doing right away, one is helping the Europeans figure out a plan for repatriating third citizens in Al-Hawl, the Europeans are extremely nervous about this, they don’t see any pathway to deradicalization or reintegration of their citizens, and that’s something that we can help with because we’ve done it with our own foreign fighters.
(Another) is continuing to support programming on the ground that allows people capacity building programs and such that are now at risk of being defunded or abandoned altogether.
And the other is just from a sort of more strategic perspective bring the Kurds and the Turks to the table addressing each of their very valid security concerns and trying to help them find a way to move forward in a way that’s not so (inaudible) as it is now. So I’ll just close with that and I’m happy to take questions later.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you, Jasmine. I’m going to throw out a few questions for our speakers before we open it up to Q&A. First, Tom will take this one first but Tom would you please talk to us about what an ISIS reaction is likely to look like to a U.S. withdrawal. Fred, if you would please address first what options the president might have for meetings the campaign promised to draw down in the region without disappointing partner forces and possibly granting ISIS increased freedom of movement.
And Jasmine, if you could talk a little bit more about – you touched on what the U.S. partners and European partners could do, I have a question about the European obstacle (of repatriation). In your opinion, is this a legal problem or a political problem on the part of our European partners and Tom and Fred you’re welcome to jump in there.
And then finally, what is likely to the be the impact of a U.S. withdrawal on the (SDS) ability to maintain control over the detainee camps in the region right – in the area right now. So Tom, if we could start with you on what an ISIS reaction to a U.S. withdrawal might look like.
Tom Warrick: ISIS is a ruthless and dangerous terrorist organization. We cannot forget that. ISIS is a threat to Americans overseas and at home and to our allies in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and as far away as Australia. They’ve proven their ability to reach out that far around the world to carry out terrorist threats. ISIS is very adaptive to opportunities. They have proven themselves agile when presented with opportunities to expand their power, do harm and carry out terrorist activities.
ISIS will see this as an opportunity to attack U.S. forces and to drive us out from Syria for good. Paradoxically this decision increases the risk to U.S. military and civilian personnel in Syria because ISIS will see it as an opportunity to cause America to have no other alternative but to leave and thereby strengthen its own power base at our expense in the Middle East.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you. Jasmine or Fred. Do either one of you want to jump in on that?
Fred Hof: No, I think that – I think that answers it well.
Jasmine El-Gamal: Yes, likewise.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Great. Fred, can I turn to you then. We’re looking at these statements by France and Germany and even by Russia through disagreeing with the president’s announcement that the U.S. should withdraw. We’re looking at comments by republican members of Congress even with the same opinion. Can you talk about what options the president might have?
Fred Hof: Yes, sure. I mean clearly the president wants to –wants to draw down and ultimately eliminate U.S. forces in the ground in the Middle East and South Asia. He’s made campaign pledges about ending endless wars, et cetera. I think – I think his main option is to come to the conclusion that what he’s being told by his department of state, department of defense advisors is correct that whatever else Syria is, it is really not part of the endless war scenario.
We had at a peak roughly 2.5 thousand Army and Marine personnel on the ground in Syria. I mean we’re faced in Syria with a basic problem and that is what has happened in Syria over the past eight plus years has not stayed in Syria; it won’t in the future either but this is not a forever war. This is an opportunity to leverage a modest investment to close a gaping wound in the heart of the Middle East and to better secure our safety and that of our allies.
This is an efficient low-cost operation certainly not without risk. There’s plenty of risk but when you consider what’s at risk, this is a good way for the United States to proceed. I think the best option for the president right now is to listen carefully to what his experts and what his operators are telling him and to rethink American engagement in Syria in a much more positive way.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you, Ambassador. Jasmine, I know you touched a lot on this in the three points you mentioned in your opening comments. Is there anything you would like to add or reiterate?
Jasmine El-Gamal: I really couldn’t agree more with Fred. I worked for five years on Syrian policy with Fred at the same he was at state, I was at the Department of Defense. And from the very beginning there was a sense (among) people who in (inaudible) career and for my level up to Fred’s level, people who understood that you cannot contain this problem.
There was such a – such a desire just to say let’s just contain it and hope it doesn’t spill over and we saw time and time and time again that that just wasn’t possible for all of the reasons that Fred mentioned. And the reason that it kept spilling over was because of a lack of U.S. engagement on the issue time and again when engagement was really necessary.
And so I want to reiterate what Fred said and completely agree that we – as President Trump really wants to end the so called “endless wars” we have to go and address the root causes of these wars, the root causes of the conflict that is spilling over over Syria’s borders and the root causes include addressing issues like the 70,000 people in their hold camps and the (zero sum) sort of existential gain that the Turks and the Curds are playing with each other.
That needs to be addressed. So just really want to reiterate that now more than ever. It is time for the U.S. to remain engaged both diplomatically and complimented with a military presence on the ground.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you Jasmine. And I’m going to keep you on the line for a second. Can you please, and for all of our speakers but Jasmine to start, do you have thoughts on whether the repatriation issue from (inaudible) for Europe is a legal issue or a political issue inside Europe?
Jasmine El-Gamal: Right. And that’s a really important question because it is such a difficult challenge and the reason is because it’s all of the above; it’s legal, it’s political and from a legal perspective one of the greatest – well let’s start with the political ones.
(Inaudible) this sort of rise of more right-winged nationalist governments and movements in Europe, that even if they’re not in power currently are putting great pressure on the people who are in power and so it makes it from a political perspective extremely difficult for any political leader right now to make the case publically to Europeans that these people who used to be citizens of the country but rips up their passports, flew over to Syria and joined as Tom said one of the most inhumane and ruthless organizations that we’ve seen.
It’s really difficult to make that case. Why are they obligated to take them back? So that’s one question that European leaders have not yet been able to answer especially making the case to their public and to their oppositions. The other one is legal and when it comes to European criminal law, every country is different but not all of them have the capacity to really – to really convict these people if they come home. So it’s – I won’t go into every country’s criminal law obviously but there difficulties when it comes to OK, if we bring them home.
Some of the most high profile people like Jihadi John or Shamima Begum are the names that we know are easier than others because they’ve admitted to their crimes. We have evidence. We have witness statements, all of that stuff. But with the vast majority of people who went to join ISIS and that includes the women as well, there just simply isn’t that evidence that would stand up in court and that’s a real fear that if you bring them back and you take them to court, by European standards, a lot of them will have to be set free.
And then finally, I think it is this idea or this sense that Europeans also don’t know what a (deradical pathway) to deradicalization and reintegration would look like. Deradicalization programs have had a very spotty record of success.
We don’t know still what works and what doesn’t. Some countries are more advanced than others in their efforts so we still don’t know and that’s just a huge risk to take alongside the two other challenges that I mentioned is that even if you can – even if you can address the political question and the legal question if you bring them home do you really know that they’re going to be able to be reintegrated or are they going to continue to be a potential extremist kind of lurking in the midst of all of these normal people?
Kirsten Fontenrose:Thank you Jasmine. Tom, can I turn to you?
Tom Warrick: So I want to address from a counterterrorism perspective the endless war scenario and I put that in quotes. Obviously no one wants to see wars go on forever. There is, in fact, a substantial body of knowledge of how wars against groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda end.
They end when the local government is able to establish security over its territory such that the terrorist group – terrorist groups are unable to carry out their operations and plan for attacks. That much is fairly well established.
What that means is as is actually reflected in the Trump Administration Counterterrorism Strategy from October of 2018 and was also in the Obama counter terrorism strategy is the idea that the local governments that have control over the territory in question need to be able to carry out the basic functions of government, border security, aviation security, law enforcement and prevent terrorists from leaving their country or from carrying out actions in their own country.
The United States has had a program for capacity building with the key foreign governments in this area but it’s never been adequately funded for the challenges that it has and in places like Iraq and in Northeast Syria, it has barely gotten off the ground.
So there is, in fact, an established understood way that we prevent endless wars and the challenge is resourcing it adequately so that it can be put into practice on the ground but the doctrines of counter insurgency war fare in situations like this are well over 50 years old. We know how to do it. It takes resources and it takes political will.
Fred Hof: This is Fred, if I could just…
Kirsten Fontenrose: Please.
Fred Hof: … you know post combat – post combat stabilization is as we learned in Iraq, as we learned again in Libya, this is not an optional matter. It’s absolutely obligatory if we want to seal the victory.
And when we’re talking about resources, in Northeastern Syria, this need not and should not be the exclusive or even largely the responsibility of the American taxpayer. We have partners who have anted up and are willing to continue to do so.
But unless we get serious about post combat stabilization, about allowing local governance to take root that is regarded by local people as legitimate, governance that can provide basic law and order. Unless we go down that path we run – we run the substantial risk of absolutely undoing everything we’ve invested over the past five years to defeat ISIS.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Excellent point Ambassador. Jasmine, anything you want to jump on (detailing) that comment?
Jasmine El-Gamal: I guess just to reiterate Fred’s point about working with partners on the ground. I think the problem in Syria has always been that no one – no one country or one actor has seen the challenges of Syria as their particular responsibility and especially for the U.S.
And especially for the U.S. signal, there’s always been a sense that Syria, in itself, is not a national security priority for the United States. I mean there are certain aspects of the Syria conflict that have become a national security priority, but they don’t have to do with Syria itself. It’s sort of the results of the conflict.
In (technical difficulty) forward in a constructive way and in order to address some of the root causes that we’re talking about, you really have to have a very strong, I believe, American voice, making the case that this is a collective responsibility.
It’s our responsibility, but it’s also the (SDF) should be involved, the Turks have to be involved. The Europeans certainly have to be involved, because the ramifications of not addressing these issues as a collective, brining in all of our different resources and capabilities is harmful for every one of the actors I just listed.
So, it really does require a group effort. And I do believe that it will take American leadership to round up all of the different actors and have them speak with one voice on this and act together.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Great. Thank you. All right, we’re going to open up the line for questions. So, if I could please have the operator give instructions for that.
Operator: At this time, I would like to remind everyone, in order to ask a question, please press “star” followed by the number “1” on your telephone keypad. We will pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Great. While that’s happening, can we turn back to the last question I posed on – for all of our speakers, what is the likely impact this may have on – a U.S. withdraw would have on the detainee camps that the SDF is monitoring and holding right in the Northeast Syria region?
Are we going to see any sort of decline in the SDF’s ability to do this or are we likely to see an ISIS attempt to liberate some of these camps? What are we thinking the second and third order effects of this kind withdrawal, if it takes place, might look like? Tom, go ahead.
Tom Warrick: So, the former ISIS fighters are detained in prisons throughout Northeastern Syria. Many of them are actually held in detention sites that are close to the Turkish border, and are therefore at greatest risks if Turkish forces move in and try to engage in combat.
There is the real likelihood that SDF forces could be pulled away from the prisons in order to engage Turkish forces, leading to a massive breakout of ISIS fighters who would try to escape to freedom or, indeed, to come to the west.
So, that’s certainly the greatest risk. Even elsewhere and I’ll Jasmine speak to the situation at Al-Hawl, which many who have been there have described as an ISIS recruiting and training ground, even while it’s being maintained and guarded as a internally placed person’s camp. But there is a significant fear that ISIS fighters who are being watched right now by the SDF will not be watched if there – turns into a hot conflict there.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thanks. Ambassador Hof or Jasmine?
Jasmine El-Gamal: Fred, go ahead.
Fred Hof: No, Jasmine, after you. I mean, my only comment would be – would be a fairly – fairly obvious one, that if the – if the Kurdish dominated SDF has its hands full dealing with a – dealing with a Turkish invasion in the north, it’s ability to maintain security at Al-Hawl and other places is going to be severely compromised.
Jasmine El-Gamal: Right. Exactly. So, in terms of Al-Hawl, just that one situation, there are about two – there are about 70,000 women and children there, about 15 percent of that population is from countries other than Syria and Iraq, and then the rest are split pretty evenly between Syrians and Iraqis. And there are about 700, if I’m not mistaken, SDF personnel who are administering this camp.
And so, if you can imagine how difficult it is already to keep an – to maintain control of the camp, let alone the fact that especially for the foreigners, who are in a separate annex, that they are extremely radicalized and that they are becoming more so by the day.
Not only because the situation and the conditions in Al-Hawl are so inhumane, by any international standards, it’s also because they’re so – they don’t even know what happened to their husbands, they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. I mean, they’re just living in this sort of environment of fear and resentment and anger.
And not to elicit any sympathy for them, but I raise that because it makes them all the more susceptible to extremist messaging and to extremist actions. And so, we have a situation where a large portion of the population of the camp is becoming more and more radicalized by the day.
They are attacking SDF guards, there’s been stabbings, and they killed a young boy last week because he wasn’t adhering to the ISIS ideology. I mean, these are, again as Tom said, a very, very ruthless group of people.
So, that’s an increasing threat by the day. In addition to that, now you have this process of a Turkish invasion, and so the SDF, who already is overstretched and doesn’t have the capacity to maintain control of the camp in a long-term way, now they have to sift some of those scarce resources to a potential fight with (Turkey) (inaudible). And their spokesperson the other day said that they’re starting to do so as we speak.
Adding to all of that, just to round-out the picture, you have ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi, who very recently called explicitly to his supporters, to ISIS supporters to get ready to attack the camp or do some kind of thing.
So, not only do you have a typical potential prison break scenario internally, but now you have the risk of an external attack as well, at a time when the SDF is being, instead of being supported by international actors, is being stretched thinner than ever.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you Jasmine. Operator, may I please request that you open the question line?
Operator: As a reminder ladies and gentlemen, that is “star,” “1” on your telephone to ask a question.
Your first question comes from the line of (Baracat Ellicy) with Egyptian (inaudible). Your line is open.
(Baracat Ellicy): Hello, good morning, everybody.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Hi, (Baracat).
Fred Hof: Good morning.
(Baracat Ellicy): Hi, how are you? Would actually – what I would expect, I mean after this – like comments, that the decision would go, (inaudible) asking the Turks just to go for like two spots. It’s only a comment and then I’ll go to my question right away.
Like not to go deep, so it would be like sufficient for the Turks for the time being, actually to go through the (inaudible) which is pure Arab communities in a way. So, that means the – and then to control the air space, that means the Turks wouldn’t be able to do anything without any permission from the U.S.
What I mean is, are the negotiations between the (medical) – the administration and the Turks just had like a stop because we had differences or how deep the Turks would be allowed to go in. For the Ambassador, Fred Hof, would actually – (one of the recommendation) is ask the Kurds to refrain from controlling the Arab villages in Northeast Syria.
But actually the Kurds were asked by the administration to control these areas, because we have the (military) power. And actually we had an extended discussion with the administration on this, that would be like a time bomb, because it creates resentments between the Arabs and the (inaudible) (in there) – in these places.
My question is, how likely if the Turks go deep, how likely a fight between the Arabs and the Kurds, with (inaudible) if the Kurds start to withdrawal to other place – other spots in Northeast Syria? Thank you very much.
Fred Hof: Yes, thank you – thank you so much for your question. I think the – I think the problem of Kurdish attempts to govern in Arab areas is something that’s – is something that’s going to deepen over time if not addressed. There is no doubt that the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic forces had the ability and they had the duty to restore order in these areas, in the wake of the wake of the defeat of the Caliphate.
But as time goes on, I mean, the – these Kurdish forces have a – have a somewhat peculiar PKK related ideology that really does not go down all that well, I think, with the Arab inhabitance of Northeastern Syria. So, they’re going to have to be some adjustments made there, especially if we’re going to deal successfully with ISIS attempts to resurrect itself through insurgency.
And finally, in terms of – in terms of what the – what the Turks may do, the worst case scenario, Turkey has spoken about a 300-mile wide, 20-mile deep security zone. I certainly hope you’re right, that they plan to stop well short of that, because if they go all the way, I’m afraid it would require a great deal of ethnic displacement.
Kirsten Fontenrose: And I’ll – this is Kirsten, I’ll jump in really quickly, just to say that my expectation would be that barring any finalization of that safe zone, final agreement, that the international community would likely hold Turkey to the – to the Adana Agreement and limit the depth with which they’re permitted to go into Syria, since the – we’re not talking about a designated group.
I think the international community would not smile upon a Turkish entry into Syria further than the few kilometers allowed by the Adana Agreement at this point, since nothing has been finalized.
Fred Hof: And on top of the – that, I might just add, I mean, Turkey has spoken about, this has become a very salient political issue within Turkey, the presence of 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Turkey has spoken about resettling 1 million or 2 million of these refugees in areas taken in Northern Syria, so that would – that would certainly suggest that what Turkey has in mind is more than the taking of a handful of predominantly Arab villages along the – along the border.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Ambassador Hof and Jasmine, would that effectively be sort of dumping a new IDP camp on Syria?
Fred Hof: Well, I think the – I think if you’re talking about 1 million to 3 million people in an area that’s 20 miles deep, even if it is 300 miles wide, you’re talking about inevitable ethnic displacement of Kurds from areas where they’ve lived for a long time, and I think that would be – that would inherently destabilizing for decades to come.
Kirsten Fontenrose: If that were to happen, who or what entity would have the legal responsibility for carrying – caring for those displaced people who are returned, quote, unquote, but still constitute displaced people?
Fred Hof: That’s very hard to tell. I think Turkey, in areas where Turkey has occupied pieces of Northern Syria, Turkey has worked in conjunction with a – with a Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Transitional Government.
So, I think something along those lines would be cobbled together for any Syrian refugees resettled in a security zone. But, there would also be a deep concern about tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds displaced from their homes in the process.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you. Let’s go to our next question.
Jasmine El-Gamal: Can I just add something to that, to what Fred said about the dangers of dumping two million people into a buffer zone where they don’t belong? It just goes back to the importance. And I just want to keep reiterating this of addressing route causes rather than kind of these constant quick fixes. So, besides the fact that we don’t know who would be responsible legally for these two million refugees who had become IDPs then in Syria.
They’re also not from those areas. They don’t want to live there. So create another environment where you have two million and it’s such a huge number. Now you have another set of people who are living in close quarters angry, resentful, afraid, again creating the perfect condition for the rise of an extremist movement or at least even individual extremist action. It goes back to the real importance of addressing these route causes.
And that means in this particular case continuing to support efforts by the UN special envoy on our own diplomatic effort to resettle or return these refugees to their original homes which is a basic human right. When it comes to refugees, they have a basic right of return to their original homes. And so doing what Turkey wants to do right now is just the complete opposite of a long-term sustainable safe solution.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Great. Thanks so much. We have time for one, maybe two more questions if they’re short – if the answers are short.
Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Andrew Scott with Open Mind Projects. Your line is open.
Andrew Scott: Hi, guys. Question is the faults on the United Nation’s current budget issues and suggestions for if resettlements not n option for some of these refugees, what role can United Nations play in pressuring the United States to do something in regard to taking on more of a role of resettling or path to citizenship for refugees in the context of the current situation.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you, Andrew. Ambassador Hof, you want to start?
Fred Hof: Yes. Well, first of all I would hope that the – I would hope as an American that my country would do the right thing with respect to Syrian refugees without pressure from the United Nations or any other quarter. Syrian refugees in places where they have established homes have contributed enormously to the places where they’re living.
I have a daughter who lives in Munich, Germany. She and her husband are sponsoring two local Syrian families. And these families have taken upon themselves to in a sense become good Germans, to learn German. These are professional people. They’re working very hard and they are contributing to their adopted country.
But I think there’s a moral issue here as well. And I would very much like to see the United States set an example and take the lead in resettling in the United States as many Syrian refugees as possible.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thank you, Hof.
Tom Warrick: The situation of the Syrian refugees who are now in Turkey is certainly a serious concern that engages all of us who are interested in protecting the important humanitarian principles of the United Nation’s charter. I think the challenge here is that we have a largely urbanized population that fled the rule of Assad regime in Syria.
And ironically the Turks, although they have imposed a measure of security on the refugee camps that are in Turkey, if these people are forced to cross the border into rural areas in northeastern Syria, the security situation actually becomes a much greater concern.
So, I think this is one of those cases where in addition to the international call to deal with the refugee situation here, I think it’s going to be necessary for the United States and our European allies in particular to open up our wallets and purses and help whichever government is going to responsible for these people whether it’s the Turkey – the Turkish government in (Accra) or whether it’s the authorities who are going to be effectively in charge in northeastern Syria.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thanks. Jasmine, any comments?
Jasmine El-Gamal: Yes, just two. This goes back to this idea of collective responsibility. This is a – the Syrian refugee problem is not going to be solved simply by returning Syrians to their homes. Some of them will never be able to return to their homes for various reasons.
And so then it becomes incumbent upon all of the international community and sort of friends of Syria if you will of the Syrian people, the European countries and the U.S. to open up their doors and allow more Syrians in as refugees in those third countries.
There’s the meeting that happens every year in Brussels on Syria and where countries make pledges to help. But what they are consistently falling short on is their resettlement quotas and their resettlement pledges, especially for the most vulnerable refugees (inaudible) back to their country (inaudible).
Kirsten Fontenrose: Sorry, Jasmine, we’re…
Jasmine El-Gamal:…decide what Fred and Tom just said about helping the Syrian refugees in Syria. Are you losing me?
Kirsten Fontenrose: We’ve got you now, go ahead.
Jasmine El-Gamal: OK. (Just to quickly) besides helping Syrian refugees in Syria and in the region, we also have to recognize that we as western countries will have to open up our own doors and allow more refugees in.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Got it. Thanks. OK, final question from the callers?
Operator: Your last question comes from the line of (Teri Holtz) with (DWNP). Your line is open.
Teri Schultz: Hi, that’s actually Teri Schultz and I’m – work for National Public Radio (inaudible) in Brussels. Hello, Ambassador Hof.
Fred Hof: Hi.
Teri Schultz: How are you doing? I wanted to know if our speakers – and thank you very much for being here, have some recommendations for Europe. I mean they’re – even if they should’ve maybe seen this move coming on the border and it’s been threatened, people are still pretty alarmed here in Brussels.
And the Europeans as have been mentioned on the call have not been willing to take back the detained fighters from their country even with the threats of the U.S. to somehow send them back. So what should Europe do now? Is there any way that they can get involved, be helpful, protect their own interest?
And also, how do you think this is going to come around to NATO. We’ve got an (inaudible) coming up. There were calls on Capitol Hill I saw to possibly kick Turkey out of NATO even though I don’t think that’s possible. Is this going to come back to being a NATO issue unavoidably simply because its two largest militaries are basically on the front line here? Thanks.
Fred Hof: This is Fred. If I may, I’ll take the NATO part of the question and leave the other to my colleagues. I think we have to keep in mind that when it comes to NATO, the ultimate dream of Russia’s Vladimir Putin is to see two NATO allies faced off in a combat situation.
From the point of view of Putin, it just doesn’t get any better than this, which is why sudden tweets about getting out of Syria, trying to – telling the Kurds you’re on your own. We’ve given you equipment; we’ve given you money, go away. Trying to balance that with threats to obliterate the Turkish economy, this is all the wrong medicine. We have to get back to the business of serious quiet diplomacy.
The Turks have some legitimate grievances as do the Kurds. This is an incredibly heavy diplomatic lift. It’s going to be very, very, very difficult. The best thing the president can do is to leave this problem to his professionals who know how to operate and who I think can reestablish some ties with our European allies and prevent Putin’s dream from coming true.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Thanks, Ambassador Hof. Tom?
Tom Warrick: So, I want to actually return to the full circle to the positive note on which Ambassador Hof started this conversation. If there is any good that can be salvaged out of the present situation, I would hope that it would provide the (inaudible) for Europe to take a more serious look at the problems of all of these foreign fighters who are in northeast Syria.
This means as Jasmine has said addressing the legal issues that make it hard for them to deal with return foreign fighters, it means addressing Turkey’s legitimate security and economic needs to offset the cost of the refugees that they have had to host partially at their own expense. So this really does provide a wakeup call to Europe that the problem of ISIS foreign fighters must be addressed.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Great. Thank you. Jasmine, anything you’d like to add?
Jasmine El-Gamal: Yes, just the importance I think especially like coming from Brussels, from a Brussels perspective, there really needs to be a coherent and consistent EU policy on Syria which just doesn’t exist and it’s aggravating all of these challenges that we’re talking about.
So, we tend to talk about Europe and what Europe should do. But if you look at the individual European states, it’s a very incoherent set of policies. Sand some of them from the most sort of aggressive to the least hands on, they don’t agree on what to do vis-à-vis reengagement with the Assad regime.
They don’t know what to do vis-à-vis reconstruction of refugees or foreign fighters. Every one of them have a different stance. And so I think that just as a very first step even before trying to address these challenges is having Europeans get together and figure out what is Europe’s policy on Syria.
How far do they want to be involved? What does that look like? Because without speaking with one voice on Syria, the European voice risks being completely marginalized. And we just can’t afford that right now.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Great. Thank you so much. Thanks to all of our speakers. Just to wrap-up the things, I will be watching based on the comments we heard today our first Europe steps or lack thereof with regard to re-integration of former fighters.
Second, international communities’ response to the refugee question and answers to questions like what do you do about refugees who are also returnees, three, the CT situation and the potential for resurgence of ISIS in response to even rumors of a withdrawal.
Four, the constitutional committee in Syria that is going to take place in 21 days, perhaps a little view toward optimism there. And a final view toward optimism, Ambassador Hof comment on how this may present a prospect for a bipartisan agreement on a solution for a way ahead. So thanks very much everyone for joining us. And we will close the call now.
Jasmine El-Gamal: Thank you.
Operator: (This concludes) today’s conference call. You may now disconnect.