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U.S. Troops Have Begun Pulling Out Of Northern Syria As Turkey Launches Offensive


And we're going to hear more now about the president's shift in policy on Syria. The shift is that U.S. forces in northern Syria will stand aside while Turkey launches an offensive across the border.


President Trump says it's time to let others step up and take responsibility for security in the region. As we just heard, there are many critics who say the move amounts to the U.S. abandoning its Kurdish allies - allies who have been key in the fight against ISIS.

KELLY: What's not in dispute is that this is happening. Today U.S. troops began pulling back from posts in northern Syria. Well, to talk about why this matters and what might come next, I want to bring in Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She's adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has traveled to Syria six times in the last two years. Welcome.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Great to join you.

KELLY: Would you begin by describing this corner of Syria? What does it look like? What has been the relationship between the U.S. forces based there and Kurdish fighters?

TZEMACH LEMMON: What you see on the ground in northern Syria is really fragile, very much endangered but very real fight for normalcy, right? Restaurants, cafes, little people going to school every day - and everyone, including a perfume entrepreneur I interviewed in Raqqa a few months back for the third time, said to me, we just want to know what tomorrow will bring because we really want to build today. This really is about the epicenter of the fight against extremism and the local folks on the ground who are doing the work. And the U.S. has been the Oz-like presence that has held this thing together with...

KELLY: The Oz-like presence - what do you mean? Like, man behind the curtain type thing?

TZEMACH LEMMON: Yes. So no one sees the Americans on the ground. I think so many people bring the lens of Iraq or Afghanistan to the discussion about Syria, but when you are on the ground in northern Syria, Mary Louise, you never see the Americans. So you see this very real stability that is facing peril from all kinds of corners that has been kept in place by local forces who have sat under this invisible blanket of American presence.

KELLY: You know, that statement from the White House makes reference to many captured ISIS fighters who are being held in detention facilities. There are families of those fighters being held in camps around the region. Can you describe - what are the current conditions for those people in these facilities, and what might the implications of this White House announcement be?

TZEMACH LEMMON: The U.S.-backed forces have held several thousand ISIS fighters, many of whom their home countries will not take back and have stripped of citizenship, and these local forces also are holding more than 60,000 ISIS family members. They were prepared during the end of the ISIS fight for maybe 20 to 30,000, and at the end, it turned out to be more than 60,000. Basically, this, you know, United Nations of ISIS is what I saw when I visited a whole camp in May, right?

KELLY: I mean, what do they look like? What are the conditions there?

TZEMACH LEMMON: So it's a sprawling camp that was clearly never intended to hold as many people as it held now. And you have a group of folks who fought ISIS who have now been asked to hold, to care for, to feed, to provide sanitation for the families and children of ISIS fighters, and they've willingly done so because the Americans have asked them to while pleading for resources to make sure that they can do so adequately.

KELLY: So what might be the impact of this latest announcement from the president in the White House?

TZEMACH LEMMON: Let's just focus on the women. So the wives of ISIS fighters - they are by no means folks who - all of whom have given up the Islamic State's ideology, and in fact, they would talk to people about how ISIS would rise again. So I think the fact that the U.S.-backed forces are very worried they're going to have to take care of their own families instead of making sure that they can help figure out what to do with the ISIS families is something we're going to contend with now.

KELLY: The U.S.-backed forces you're referring to, the SDF, the Syrian defense forces - you talked to the head of those forces today. This was Commander Mazloum Abdi. Is that right?

TZEMACH LEMMON: I spoke with the SDF head this morning, and, you know, what he said was, listen. You know, until as recently as yesterday, we have been working with the Americans on a security mechanism to answer all of Turkey's security concerns. What happens next for us is that we will have to turn away from the ISIS fight to protect our own homes. We don't want that, we know the Americans don't want that, and we are ready to figure out what we could do to avoid this. But if we have to, we will fight.

KELLY: I want to push you on what this could mean for ISIS - not families of fighters left behind in camps, but whether this opens the door. If the U.S. has a reduced presence in those part of Syria, does that open the door for ISIS to come back and grow stronger?

TZEMACH LEMMON: Everyone is waiting to see what this decision will mean in terms of what it looks like on the ground. I think the big feeling that is held across the board is that the Islamic State benefits from a vacuum. It benefits from chaos. I think of this mom who fled Raqqa eight and a half months pregnant who - I've been following her story for the last two years. And when I saw her in May, she said, please tell the Americans we will fight for our own future. We just need a shot at stability. And I think that is what this Oz-like American presence has been able to create, and it's been able to help moms like that who has been fighting their own frontline war against the Islamic State keep that fight, end it.

KELLY: That is author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations. Her next book focuses on the role of women in the fight against ISIS.

Thanks very much.

TZEMACH LEMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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