Retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who previously served as President Trump’s national security adviser, said Thursday that Trump’s decision to pull back U.S. troops from northeast Syria, allowing Turkey to move forward with its long-planned anti-Kurdish offensive, was “unfortunate.”
McMaster, who parted ways with the Trump administration in April 2018 over policy differences, said Trump and others who oppose an ongoing U.S. troop presence in Syria are “missing” a “more full understanding” of its importance.
“I believe that the troop commitment in northeastern Syria was immensely helpful to U.S. security and U.S. interests in a number of ways,” McMaster said at an event at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he now serves as chairman of its Center on Military and Political Power.
“So what’s unfortunate, I think, about the decision is I think a lot of people who may have been talking to the president or the president himself may not have focused maybe on the importance of that force in connection with defeating the terrorist organization, but also having the influence necessary to ultimately help end this catastrophe across the greater Middle East,” McMaster added.
On Wednesday, Turkish forces and an allied Syrian militia launched an offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, to the dismay of both Democrats and Republicans. The Kurdish fighters have proved instrumental in the fight against ISIS, but Turkey considers them terrorists.
The Turkish advance came after Trump ordered U.S. forces in the area to retreat, paving the way for the NATO ally’s move.
Trump has defended his decision as taking a step to fulfill his promise to end so-called “forever wars,” even though Pentagon and White House officials have said the U.S. special operators are moving to elsewhere in Syria rather than withdrawing from the country altogether.
U.S. lawmakers in both parties have blasted Trump’s decision as abandoning the Kurds to be slaughtered by Turkey and allowing a chaos that could lead to ISIS’s resurgence.
On Thursday, McMaster said the U.S. troops in northeast Syria have served as a “useful means” to prevent Turkey from attacking the Kurds, which he said “has profound political as well as humanitarian consequences in the region.”
He also said the U.S. troops were important for a “sustained effort” against ISIS, as well as ensuring the United States does not cede influence in the region to Russia and Iran.
McMaster said the United States appears to be on the verge of facing “four simultaneous crises” in the Middle East: the Turkish-Kurdish fight; a possibly intensified Syrian civil war; the possibility of destabilizing in Iraq, where there have been massive protests in recent weeks; and an emboldened Iran.
McMaster called Turkey’s actions this week “regrettable.”
“I can only conclude that President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is driven more by emotion, maybe by domestic political considerations and how he wants to conjure up a conflict like this for domestic reasons by bolstering his nationalist base,” he said. “It’s been a sad couple days, and it’s going to get sadder, I think, as the relationship with Turkey becomes regrettably even more strained.”