Turkish attack on Syria could have been stopped: US official

“The question of ‘in or out’ is, I think, just fictitious in the sense that every time we leave, we always go back.”

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Until Friday, Michael Mulroy was the Pentagon’s top official on the Middle East. Just before leaving his position as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, Mulroy explained to Defense One that the US could probably have prevented Turkey’s cross-border assault into northeastern Syria.

Following an Oct. 6 conversation between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, the White House announced it was withdrawing some 50 US troops from an area that Turkey intended to invade. Ankara then attacked three days later.

But “just days before,” Mulroy and “a team of officials” across the US government “were working to shore up a fragile deal with Turkey to prevent just such an incursion,” Defense One said.

“Those fifty troops had been doing joint patrols with Turkish soldiers to assuage Ankara’s security concerns,” it explained, even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “had long been dissatisfied” with the arrangement.

“I think it would have worked, to be honest,” Mulroy said. “It wasn’t perfect, but I think it was in everybody’s interest to actually have done that.”

“Turkey’s security concerns would have been addressed,” he continued. “We would have prevented the need for an incursion.”

But the incursion occurred, and senior US military figures have strongly criticized the White House decision. Last December, when Trump first said he would withdraw US forces from the area (also following a discussion with Erdogan), Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis (US Marine Corps, Retired) resigned in protest.

Read More: Mattis resigns, protesting Syria withdrawal, worried about fate of Syrian Kurds

Although Trump’s decision was modified then, when it reemerged in October, it prompted a sharp rebuke from Gen. John Kelly (US Marine Corps, Retired) who had also been Trump’s Chief of Staff until last January.

A “catastrophically bad idea,” is how Kelly described the decision to withdraw abruptly from Syria, while Gen. Jack Keane (US Army, Retired), former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, warned there is “no doubt” that the Islamic State will return.

Before the Turkish cross-border assault, the Pentagon had been working in accord with Trump’s directive to cut the number of US troops in Syria, Mulroy explained.

The Pentagon has “followed presidential guidance from day one,” he said. “We were consolidating our gains, and we were planning for the future, when we would have even less forces.”

But then came Trump’s decision to withdraw all US forces, later modified to allow some forces to remain in eastern Syria to control the area in which the oil fields are located.

Read More: US to bolster control of Syrian oil fields

Mulroy rejects what might be called the “yo-yo approach” to Middle East deployments: send them in, pull them out, then send them in again.

The US should aim for a “long-term presence in places like Yemen and Syria,” in his view, as Defense One reported.

“I think our goal should be normalizing our presence,” Mulroy said. “So the question of ‘in or out’ is, I think, just fictitious in the sense that every time we leave, we always go back.”

“Before you decide to pull everyone out, I think it’s always important to realize that history will show you that the United States always determines that it’s more important to have an influence in these countries,” Mulroy explained. “And then they have to go back into a place where you might not have the same level of partnerships. You’ve obviously lost footing.”

A good example would be Iraq, where the Obama administration pulled out all US forces at the end of 2011, only to have to return troops three years later, as the Islamic State overran Mosul and threatened to capture even more of the country.

In an earlier interview with Kurdistan 24, Mulroy noted that the Middle East is an arena of competition with what the Defense Department calls “revisionist powers,” particularly Russia.

The Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, the first update to that document in a decade, states, “Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities for the [Defense] Department.”

With the abrupt US withdrawal from Syria, Turkey reached an agreement with Russia that is remarkably similar to the agreement between Washington and Ankara that Mulroy had been working on.

But instead of joint patrols between US and Turkish troops in a buffer zone separating Turkish forces from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Turkish-Russian agreement calls for joint patrols between Russian and Turkish forces!

Two months ago, Mulroy cautioned that “Syria presents Russia with many opportunities, including but not limited to re-establishing great power status in the region, demonstrating and improving” its military capabilities, and “deepening contacts with traditional US partners and allies.”

Read More: Pentagon: US will continue to support Peshmerga

Mulroy came to the Pentagon from the CIA, where he served as a paramilitary operations officer. During the 2003 war in Iraq, Mulroy worked with the Peshmerga, and he has the highest praise for them.

After Mattis became Secretary of Defense, he brought in Mulroy, along with others like him, because he wanted people in senior positions who had meaningful experience in the field in the areas for which they were to be responsible.

Mulroy leaves the Pentagon with an award for outstanding public service, the latest in a series of recognitions which include the Intelligence Star, the Career Intelligence Medal, as well as awards for his service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany