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Former top U.S. military official in Mideast on the outlook for peace in Syria

September 13, 2019

AMNA NAWAZ: The United States has been at
war in Afghanistan for 18 years, and the American role in Syria continues to evolve, with no
clear end in sight. Until recently, retired General Joseph Votel
oversaw those conflicts and others as head of the U.S. military’s Middle East operations. Stephanie Sy speaks with Votel. But, first, she has an update on the conflict
in Syria. STEPHANIE SY: From the air and on the ground,
up to three million people living in Northern Syria are being boxed in, with nowhere to
go. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are continuing
their onslaught in northwest Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold. The cease-fire announced by Assad and his
Russian backers at the end of August has been all but broken, according to Idlib resident
and civilian activist Jomah Alqasem. JOMAH ALQASEM, Humanitarian Worker: The airstrikes
in the recent offensive are more concentrated towards the rebel front lines. This is the burned by land — or what they
call the burned land strategy that the Syrian regime, Syrian army and the Russian backup
of the air is demolishing all this architecture. STEPHANIE SY: While Idlib burns, hundreds
of thousands of residents are fleeing toward Turkey, joining a bottleneck of refugees from
other parts of Syria, packed into overcrowded camps like al-Hol. The camps for the desperately displaced are
fertile ground for extremists looking for recruits. Camps across the border are also at their
breaking point. Turkey is already host to 3.6 million refugees,
having made a deal with Europe to keep them from migrating further. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is
now threatening to release the refugees unless Europe provides more aid. RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkish President (through
translator): This either happens, or we will have to open the gates. Either you will provide support, or, excuse
us, but we can only tolerate this so much. Are we going to carry this weight alone? STEPHANIE SY: Turkey is also poised for its
own conflict in Northeast Syria, against the very forces that have helped the U.S. beat
back ISIS. The Syrian Kurds are viewed by Turkey as terrorists,
threatening to carve out their own nation. Caught in a crosscurrent of dueling interests,
the U.S. agreed to help clear the northeastern border of Syrian Kurdish outposts, and begin
patrolling the border, along with Turkish forces. But Turkey’s foreign minister says the U.S.
isn’t doing enough. MEVLUT CAVUSOGLU, Turkish Foreign Minister
(through translator): There are some joint patrols, but other than that, the steps that
have been taken, or the steps that are said to be taken, are cosmetic steps. We are seeing that the United States want
to enter another stalling process. They are trying to get Turkey accustomed to
this stalling process. But our stance on this matter is very clear. STEPHANIE SY: The multifront war in Syria
has divided allies and diffused attention. U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet
urged the world to refocus. MICHELLE BACHELET, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner:
These figures are appalling, shameful, and deeply tragic. In a bid to take control of territories, there
appears to be little concern about taking civilian lives. Any further escalation will only result in
further loss of life and displacement of civilians who have already been forced to repeatedly
flee a situation of dire humanitarian conditions. So I appeal to all parties in the conflict
and to those many powerful states with influence to put aside political differences and halt
the carnage. STEPHANIE SY: Meanwhile, back in Idlib, Jomah
Alqasem says his fellow countrymen, women and children are losing hope. JOMAH ALQASEM: All of these humanitarian actors
that we have seen actively being involved in the Syria crisis are shrinking and decreasing
the fund that is being allocated to the Syrian response. What we are seeing is the worst humanitarian
crisis, let’s say, or part of the Syrian crisis that has been chronically occurring the last
nine years. But, unfortunately, this is the weakest response. STEPHANIE SY: According to The New York Times,
the U.S. is boosting its military response in Northeast Syria. It’s sending 150 additional forces to monitor
the border with Turkey. Joining me now to discuss this conflict in
Syria and on other fronts is retired General Joseph Votel. Until April, he led U.S. Central Command,
which oversees military operations in the Middle East. He is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute. General Votel, it’s a pleasure to have you
with us here at the “NewsHour.” Is there a solution in Syria? GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL (RET.), Former Commander, U.S.
Central Command: Well, certainly, there is. I mean, the solution is, we have to get to
a political settlement of the situation here. Military operations can only do so much, but,
ultimately, the international community has got to come together, hopefully under the
support of the United Nations, to move forward with a political solution here in Syria. STEPHANIE SY: But what role does the U.S.
play? The U.S. really isn’t involved in a place
like Idlib. It really isn’t involved in the Syrian civil
war. Beyond it wanting to contain ISIS, what role
should the administration be playing in Syria right now? GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: Well, I think the role the United
States should be playing certainly is that we have led a 79-member coalition to address
the threat of ISIS. And we have done that very effectively. And we have used our partners on the ground
to do that. And now, in places like North and East Syria,
we are working with our partners to help stabilize these areas so we can create platform that
would allow for — allow for the international community to move forward. STEPHANIE SY: You oversaw the withdrawal of
most U.S. troops from Syria last year, after it was ordered by President Trump via Twitter. You were not informed or consulted before
that move. Had you been consulted, what would you have
said? GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: Well, I don’t think that would
have been — as I have said, I don’t — in congressional testimony — I don’t think that
would have been my recommendation at the time. I think it’s important to remember that, in
December, at the time when that announcement was made, we were still very engaged in a
military campaign down in the Middle Euphrates Valley. We had not yet completed the defeat of the
caliphate. And so we needed to finish that. So it wouldn’t have been my advice to make
that decision at that particular juncture. STEPHANIE SY: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis
actually resigned over that decision. Six months since you have retired from Central
Command, are you seeing ramifications of that troop withdrawal? And do you think ISIS is potentially resurgent
still in Syria? GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: Yes, I think that’s an excellent
question. I think we have always been concerned about
the resurgence of ISIS. It’s important to recognize that what we accomplished
was the defeat of the physical caliphate, the state-like entity that ISIS tried to impose,
and actually did impose for a long period of time, which we, I think, completely dismantled. But that doesn’t mean all the fighters have
gone away. What we have learned over time with these
types of organizations is that we do have to keep pressure on them. They have gone to ground. They have gone to small cells. So we have to stay after them in terms of
that. We have known that that’s going to be a requirement. And that’s a key aspect of, I think, what
we’re doing now with our partners on the ground. STEPHANIE SY: Let’s talk about Afghanistan,
troops there also under your command, troops there also promised a withdrawal. President Trump called off secret talks he
had planned with the Taliban and the Afghan government last week over the death of an
American soldier. Some 2,000 Americans soldiers have been killed
there in Afghanistan. When lawmakers and others criticize negotiations
with the Taliban because they consider them terrorists — and, mind you, yesterday was
the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — what would you say? GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: The strategy the administration
has put in place that was announced in August of 2017 was to move towards an end state of
reconciliation between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. And so that’s what the object of all of our
military activity and a lot of our diplomatic activity has been since then, is to create
the conditions that would bring the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan together. And through our special envoy, that’s what
a bulk of his work has been over the last year-plus, to try to do that. This will not be resolved militarily. STEPHANIE SY: What do we stand to lose as
nation if we pull out now? GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: Well, I think we have to remember
the reason why we went to Afghanistan. We went to Afghanistan because Afghanistan
turned into a land of instability that allowed an organization like al-Qaida to plot an attack
that killed 3,000 of our citizens. STEPHANIE SY: Is it not still completely unstable? GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: I don’t know that it’s completely
unstable. There certainly is an element of instability
that is being caused by the Taliban and other terrorist groups that operate in that particular
area. But it’s in our interest, it’s in our national
interest to ensure that we try to get Afghanistan as stable as we can, and that the instability
that remains in Afghanistan doesn’t impact our other interests. STEPHANIE SY: You recently wrote a letter,
along with many other generals, more than two dozen, about the Trump administration’s
policy toward refugees. And your argument is that drawing down the
number of refugees this nation accepts could actually destabilize our allies, as well as
threaten our own national security. Can you explain that? GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: Sure. One of the provisions I think that we addressed
in the letter was a provision for the special immigrant visa. This is a program that was set in — was put
in place a number of years ago to offer an opportunity for those who assisted us in our
military operations to come to the United States. I think what we have to remember is, many
of these Afghan citizens that served with us as interpreters not only put themselves,
but put their families at risk, in support of our national security objectives. STEPHANIE SY: Iraqis as well. GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: And Iraqis as well. And so this is — I think this is — it’s
important for us to follow through, I think, and provide them the safety and the opportunity
to come to our country. And the special immigrant visa, the P-2 and
visa program that’s in place for Iraq, these are extraordinarily important programs. And they send a very strong message to our
partners and people that put it on the line for us that we are with you and we are going
the stay with you. We have talked about the number of refugees
in countries like Turkey, but also Lebanon, Jordan. All of these countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan,
have absorbed huge numbers of refugees. And this is a challenge for the international
community that we have to address. And I think the United States has to play
a role and be seen as a leader on this. So that’s what motivated me to support this
letter. STEPHANIE SY: General Joseph Votel, former
head of Central Command, thank you so much. GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.

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