The Turkish attack on U.S.-backed Kurds in the northeastern reaches of Syria might have been headed off, the Pentagon’s top Middle East policy official said in an exclusive exit interview with Defense One.
Just days before Trump announced that he would clear Turkey’s path by withdrawing 50 troops who were helping to patrol a border zone between the two countries, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for the Middle East Mick Mulroy and a team of officials across government were working to shore up a fragile deal with Turkey to prevent just such an incursion.
Those fifty troops had been doing joint patrols with Turkish soldiers to assuage Ankara’s security concerns about Kurdish fighters working with the United States to fight ISIS. But Turkey had long been dissatisfied with this “security mechanism,” and after its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Trump that he planned to invade, the U.S. leader abandoned it.
“I think it would have worked, to be honest,” said Mulroy, whose last day in the administration was Friday. “It wasn’t perfect. But I think it was in everybody’s interest to actually have done that. Turkey’s security concerns would’ve been addressed. We would have prevented the need for an incursion.”
The White House — and senior administration leaders — have argued that the Turkish invasion was inevitable, and that Trump’s decision was the only way to prevent them from being caught in a crossfire between the invading Turks and the U.S.-backed Kurds. Critics have called the withdrawal a “green light” for the Turkish invasion, lambasting it as both an inexplicable concession to Erdogan and a cheap way for the president to fulfill a campaign promise to “bring home” U.S. troops.
Mulroy says that the Pentagon was working to carry out Trump’s directive to draw down forces in Syria. (Trump first announced a complete withdrawal in December 2018, then agreed to a residual force. He announced another complete withdrawal in October, following the Turkish attack, but has since agreed, again, to keep U.S. troops in other parts of Syria.)
“They [the Pentagon] have followed presidential guidance from day one. We had a plan and we were reducing forces,” Mulroy said. “We were consolidating our gains and we were planning for the future of when we would even have less forces.”
“I think what happened, obviously, is that Turkey decided to do Operation Peace Spring.”
Mulroy leaves the Trump administration after two years, as he had long planned but amid a tumultuous moment at the Pentagon. The administration has come under fierce fire for the Syria withdrawal, which critics say amounts to an abandonment of the Kurdish militia who did the bulk of the ground fighting against ISIS and lost more than 11,000 fighters in the process. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has also become embroiled in the impeachment investigation of the president, over allegations that the administration withheld millions of dollars in security assistance to Ukraine in order to pressure Kyiv to investigate Trump’s chief political rival in the 2020 election.
Mulroy leaves with an award for outstanding public service — for which he credits his policy team — having been involved in many of the major national security plotlines during the first three years of the Trump administration. He counts the Pentagon’s Yemen and Iran policies among his signature achievements. The ongoing conflict in Yemen is “going in the right direction,” Mulroy said. “And right now we’re in a situation where we’re not at war with Iran,” he said. “I know that’s the absence of something as a success, but for us, that’s a success.”
But in some ways, Trump’s former top policy official on the Middle East sounds very different from his boss. Where Trump has been deeply ambivalent about U.S. involvement overseas, vowing to bring American troops home from hotspots across the Middle East, Mulroy says that the United States should strive for a long-term presence.
“I view not just Yemen, but all of the conflicts we’re involved in, I think our goal should be normalizing our presence,” he 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 everybody 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,” he continued, citing a series of conflicts where the U.S. has drawn down only to later return. “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.”
Trump has responded to criticism that the U.S. treatment of its Kurdish partners will make it more difficult to recruit counterterror partners in other parts of the world by boasting that “alliances are easy.” Mulroy, who spent most of his career as a paramilitary operations officer in the CIA, at times working with partner forces overseas, says that State and Defense officials on the ground in Syria will have to work to “repair” the relationship with the Syrian Democratic Forces.
“What’s happened has happened,” he said. “So I think now we have to focus on the residual presence and making sure that the SDF sees us as a full and committed partner.”
“There will be some repair of the relationship,” he said. “But the people that are on the ground out there can do it because they have incredibly strong relationships.”
Mulroy was swift to praise otherwise nameless diplomats and security officials working the Syria problem. He cites the State Department’s Syria specialists Joel Rayburn and Jim Jeffrey, while Jeffrey’s deputy, Amb. Bill Roebuck, is “an unsung hero,” he says.
Trump has defended his withdrawal in part by insisting that the Kurds “are no angels,” hinting that the U.S. saw the Turkish incursion as justified. Mulroy denied that the SDF posed a legitimate security concern for Turkey.
“We were partnered with the SDF,” he said. “So if they were a threat to Turkey, we’d’ve known it and we’d’ve stopped it. And I think that’s something that we need to highlight, is that they were not.”
And he emphatically praised the militia group as integral to both the defeat of ISIS’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria and the raid that killed former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last week.
“They were the ones that carried the biggest burden. They’re the ones that lost eleven thousand peshmerga in that victory,” he said, of the ISIS defeat. “We don’t want to oversell it, because ISIS is obviously still a threat.
“But we shouldn’t just skim over it because it was an incredible feat that they did. Nobody in Washington did that. They did that.”