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Former U.S. Ambassador Ford On Trump's Syria Policy


President Trump has a warning for Turkey. He said on Twitter that if Turkey attacks U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, the U.S. will, quote, "devastate Turkey economically." Last month, the president announced that the U.S. is pulling all its troops out of Syria, and defense officials confirm that process is now underway. But the U.S. exit will leave Kurdish fighters vulnerable to an attack by Turkey. U.S. forces fought alongside Kurdish forces in the battle against ISIS. Now I am joined by Robert Ford, U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014. Ambassador, thanks for being here.

ROBERT FORD: Good morning. How are you?

MARTIN: I am well. You support President Trump's decision to pull troops from Syria. Can you just briefly remind us why you think that's the best course of action?

FORD: The reason I think it's the best course of action is that the American soldiers there have done about as much as they can in terms of reducing ISIS's capacity to threaten the United States. To totally eradicate ISIS, that's really a job that only Syrians, not American soldiers, can do.

MARTIN: So what do you make of the president's tweet warning Turkey not to attack the Kurds? Do you think that will be enough to deter an action like that?

FORD: Well, that's going to be hard. The animosity between the Syrian Kurdish fighters, this particular group in Syria and Turkey, goes back decades. And it's going to take very agile American diplomacy to keep the two sides from starting to fight again.

MARTIN: What about this mention - the president, in that same tweet, just said the words create 20-mile safe zone. What does that mean? Can you provide - understanding you're not in the president's head, but can you give any more context to what that would look like on the ground?

FORD: The tweet raises a lot of questions. The Americans and Turkey and this Syrian Kurdish fighting group have been discussing some kind of a border zone. That's been going on for weeks. But exactly how that would be done, what it would include - would it include Syrian Kurdish towns, for example? That's less clear.

MARTIN: What does it mean when the president says he'll devastate Turkey economically? I mean, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked by reporters today traveling with him in the region. He said it wasn't really clear on what it did mean. Is it sanctions? What would it look like?

FORD: Well, for example, the Trump administration applied punitive sanctions against Turkish exports to the United States because of the case of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been held by the Turks for years. Would those sanctions be reimposed again? It's not clear. Again, you know, diplomacy by tweet can raise as many questions as it answers.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I want to get your reaction to a story that broke in The Washington Post over the weekend. It reveals that President Trump went to great lengths to conceal details of conversations he had with Vladimir Putin. That reportedly includes at least once taking the notes from his own interpreter and instructing that interpreter not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials. As someone with a long history in the State Department, a veteran diplomat, would that be an unusual move?

FORD: Well, I was around summits involving George Herbert Walker Bush and Barack Obama and others, and I've never heard of a president taking translator's notes like that. You know, a president's desire for keeping conversations private is certainly understandable, but usually the top aides are included in understanding what was discussed, even if they weren't in the meeting. And the Trump administration seems to be going way beyond that in terms of trying to keep information limited. And it's not helpful in teams, diplomatic teams, being able to do the follow-up.

MARTIN: Do you see this as a dangerous precedent?

FORD: No. I don't think it's a dangerous precedent because every American president can set his or her own style. Richard Nixon's antics didn't create a precedent during the 1970s, for example. And he was a guy who loved privacy, too. But what I do think is, today, it's making the task of the State Department, it's making the task of the Defense Department, it's making the task of the National Security Council more difficult.

MARTIN: Ambassador Robert Ford, now a senior fellow at both the Middle East Institute and Yale University. Thanks so much.

FORD: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.