Oct 20, 2019

State Department circulates talking points contradicting Trump on Syria

U.S. military vehicles drive on a road in the town of Tal Tamr on October 20, 2019, after pulling out of their base. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

The State Department distributed talking points to American embassies on Oct. 17 that included warnings that Turkey’s military offensive against Kurds in northern Syria is undermining counter-ISIS efforts and endangering innocent civilians, Vox's Alex Ward reports.

Why it matters: The talking points contradict President Trump's optimism about the Turkish incursion that followed his decision to remove troops from northern Syria. They indicate that members of his administration, especially career diplomats, are worried about the long-term consequences of the decision.

What they're saying: According to a copy of the talking points obtained by Vox, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs wrote that "Turkey’s military offensive is severely undermining counter-ISIS efforts, endangering innocent civilians, and threatening peace, security, and stability in the region."

  • "Turkey does not appear to be mitigating the humanitarian impact of its invasion and occupation of some parts of northeast Syria," the cable adds. The U.S. has "called on Turkey to investigate possible violations of international humanitarian law, especially unlawful attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure."
  • The talking points also note that the department has withdrawn humanitarian and stabilization assistance advisers from northern Syria, which will make it difficult to implement the $50 million aid that the U.S. plans to distribute, per Vox.

Meanwhile, Trump has brushed off concerns that ISIS fighters could take advantage of the chaos and escape prisons and detention camps. On Oct. 9, Trump said ISIS fighters would defect to Europe if they escaped.

  • So far, at least 950 ISIS supporters have escaped camps for displaced people.
  • On Oct. 16, the president said that "the Kurds are much safer right now. But the Kurds know how to fight, and as I said, they're not angels. They're not angels. ... I wish them all a lot of luck."

Of note: The State Department released the talking points before Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and agreed to a temporary ceasefire that would force Kurdish forces to evacuate the area.

  • A State Department official told Vox the talking points have not been updated since the ceasefire.

Go deeper: Pentagon may struggle to contain ISIS in Syria

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Pentagon chief says U.S. troops to leave Syria for Iraq

A soldier stands guard during a joint patrol with Turkish troops in September in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha, near the border with Turkey. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Saturday night that all of the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops leaving Syria will continue the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, from western Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: President Trump has faced scathing criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, which paved the way for Turkey to lead a military offensive against Kurdish forces who allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

Go deeperArrowOct 20, 2019

Sen. Rand Paul: Kurds "should be thanking us" for Syria exit

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called Kurdish forces "ingrates" on Wednesday for heaving potatoes and rotten vegetables at U.S. troops withdrawing from northern Syria, ABC News reports.

The big picture: Some of the most powerful Republicans in Congress have denounced President Trump's decision to pull troops from Syria in preparation for Turkey's military offensive into the region, saying it could undo years of fighting ISIS and expose U.S.-allied Kurds to violence.

Go deeperArrowOct 23, 2019

Iraqi president: It's reckless to think defeat of ISIS is complete

In an interview with Jonathan Swan for "Axios on HBO," Iraqi President Barham Salih said that while the military defeat of ISIS is an important moment, it is still incomplete and could "easily unravel."

  • The interview was prior to news of the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Experts remain concerned about an ISIS resurgence even without the group’s leader.
Go deeperArrowOct 27, 2019