In recent days, nearly a thousand prisoners with suspected ISIS ties reportedly escaped a camp in the country. Syrian Kurdish fighters — who allied with the US to defeat ISIS — struck a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to fend off the invading Turkish forces. Russia has already started to fill the vacuum America left. And Trump has now sanctioned Turkey for its actions, pitting the US firmly against its own NATO ally.
Put simply, it’s hard to imagine a worse decision.
It’s therefore no surprise that moderators at Tuesday’s debate asked the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates for their views on Syria.
As expected, most blasted Trump’s decision, saying it was a betrayal of an important US ally and has only benefited America’s adversaries. “It’s been the most shameful thing any president has done … in terms of foreign policy,” former Vice President Joe Biden said.
But Rep. Tulsi Gabbard used the opportunity to say the US should no longer engage in “regime change wars,” even though the US was in Syria to fight ISIS — not remove Assad.
Since this was a rare moment of Democrats discussing foreign policy at length, and about a major hotspot like Syria no less, it’s worth seeing their responses in full and in order.
(Please note that the answers below are based on a rush transcript.)
President Trump ordered the withdrawal of all American forces from northern Syria, abandoning America’s long-time Kurdish allies. Turkey has invaded Syria, and it is a victory for Bashar al-Assad. Would you send American troops back into northern Syria to prevent an ISIS resurgence and protect our Kurdish allies?
Former Vice President Joe Biden
I would not have withdrawn the troops and would not have withdrawn the additional thousand troops in Iraq [note: he meant to say Syria] that are in retreat being fired on by Assad’s people and the president of the United States saying if those ISIS folks escape from the prisons they’re in, they’ll only go to Europe and won’t affect us.
It’s been the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history — excuse me, in terms of foreign policy. The fact of the matter is, I’ve spent thousands of hours in the Situation Room and spent time in Syria, in Iraq, and our commanders across the board, former and present, are ashamed of what’s happening here.
What I would do is I would be making it real clear to Assad that in fact where he’s going to have a problem because Turkey is the real problem here. And I would be having a real lockdown conversation with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and letting him know he’s going to pay a heavy price for what he has done. Now pay that price.
Just to clarify, Mr. Vice President, would you want the troops back in?
I would want those thousand troops to be protected under air cover, having to withdraw under fire, make it clear they’re not going anywhere and have them protected and work my way back toward what in fact needs to be done, protecting those Kurds. They lost their lives. This is shameful! Shameful what this man has done!
Congresswoman Gabbard, last week you said American troops should get out of Syria now. You don’t agree with how the president handled the withdrawal. What would you have done differently? How would you have pulled out troops without the bloodshed we’re seeing now?
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)
First of all, we’ve got to understand the reality of the situation there, which is that the slaughter of the Kurds being done by Turkey is yet another negative consequence of the regime change war we’ve been waging in Syria. Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hands, but so do many of the politicians in our country from both parties who have supported this ongoing regime change war in Syria that started in 2011, along with many in the mainstream media, who have been championing and cheer leading this regime change war.
Not only that but, The New York Times and CNN have also smeared veterans like myself for calling for an end to this regime change war. Just two days ago The New York Times put out an article saying that I’m a Russian asset and an Assad apologist and all these different smears. This morning a CNN commentator said on national television that I’m an asset of Russia. Completely despicable.
As president, I will end these regime change wars by doing two things: ending the draconian sanctions that are really a modern day siege, the likes of which we are seeing Saudi Arabia wage against Yemen that have caused tens of thousands Syrian civilians to die and to starve, and make sure we stop supporting terrorists like al-Qaeda who have been the ground force in this ongoing regime change war.
I’d like to ask Senator Warren if she would join me in calling for an end to this regime change war in Syria finally.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
So, look, I think we ought to get out of the Middle East [note: Warren’s campaign has since clarified that she meant to say Syria but doesn’t want combat troops in the Middle East]. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East but we have to do it the right way, the smart way.
What this president has done is that he has sucked up to dictators, he has made impulsive decisions that often his own team doesn’t understand. He has cut and run on our allies and he enriched himself at the expense of the United States of America.
In Syria, he has created a bigger-than-ever humanitarian crisis. He has helped ISIS get another foothold, a new lease on life. I sit on the [Senate] Armed Services Committee. I talk with our military leaders about this. I was in Iraq and went through the neighborhoods that ISIS destroyed. We need to get out but we need to do this through a negotiated solution. There is no military solution in this region.
Mayor Buttigieg, you’ve been calling for an end to endless wars. What’s your response on Syria?
Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Well, respectfully, congresswoman, I think that is dead wrong. The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence, it is a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.
Look, I didn’t think we should have gone to Iraq in the first place. I think we need to get out of Afghanistan, but it’s also the case that a small number of specialized, special operations forces and intelligence capabilities were the only thing that stood between that part of Syria and what we’re seeing now, which is the beginning of a genocide and the resurgence of ISIS. Meanwhile soldiers in the field are reporting that for the first time they feel ashamed — ashamed of what their country has done.
We saw the spectacle, the horrifying sight of a woman with the lifeless body of her child in her arms asking what the hell happened to American leadership. When I was deployed I knew one of the things keeping me safe was the flag on my shoulder represented a country that kept its word. You take that away, it takes away what makes America America, and makes the troops and our world a much more dangerous response.
So what you’re saying, Mayor Pete, you would continue to have US troops in Syria for an indefinite period of time to continue this regime change war that has caused so many refugees to flee Syria, that you would continue to have our country involved in a war that has undermined our national security, you would continue this policy of the US actually providing arms in support to terrorist groups in Syria like al-Qaeda and al-Nusra because they have been the ground force in this regime change war.
That’s what you’re saying?
You can put an end to endless war without embracing Donald Trump’s policy, as you’re doing.
What is an endless war if it not a regime change war?
What we were doing in Syria was keeping our word. Part of what makes it possible for the United States to get people to put their lives on the line to back us up is the idea that we will back them up, too.
When I was deployed, not just the Afghan National Army forces but the janitors put their lives on the line just by working with US forces. I would have a hard time today looking an Afghan civilian or soldier in the eye after what just happened over there. And it is undermining the honor of our soldiers. You take away the honor of our soldiers, you might as well go after their body armor next.
This president has betrayed American values, our credible has been tattered. I will restore US credibility before it is finally too late.