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Rep. Ro Khanna: We Need a Responsible Withdrawal from Syria, Not One Oblivious to Human Life

StoryOctober 17, 2019
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As hundreds of thousands of civilians face displacement and violence amid Turkey’s assault on Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria, the House of Representatives voted to condemn Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. support for the Kurds on Wednesday. The measure passed 354 to 60. We speak with Representative Ro Khanna, who says, “We can’t just get involved in a place and then walk away and not have some moral responsibility. We have a moral responsibility not just to the Kurds who fought with us against ISIS. We have a moral responsibility to accept Syrian refugees. We have a moral responsibility to help rebuild a society that was ravaged by civil war, where we were involved.” We also speak with Ozlem Goner, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the City University of New York. She is a member of the Emergency Committee of Rojava.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as the House of Representatives has just voted to condemn Trump’s actions in Syria. The measure passed 354 to 60, The New York Times describing the vote as, quote, “the most significant bipartisan repudiation of Mr. Trump since he took office.” We are also joined in Washington, D.C., by Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California, member of the House Oversight Committee, which Congressmember Cummings headed. And in a moment, we’re going to talk about Congressmember Cummings with Congressmember Ro Khanna.

Our condolences to you on the death of your chairman, such a significant figure in U.S. history. But we wanted to go to this unprecedented, at this moment, bipartisan rejection of what Trump has done. Your response to what’s happening now in northern Syria?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Amy, first let me just say it’s a sad day with Chairman Cummings’s passing. He was a great man, a son of a sharecropper, who was a civil rights icon in this country. And it’s a real loss, not just for Congress, but for the country.

President Trump has put American security at risk and has really been irresponsible. And this is a clear illustration of the difference between progressives, who have been calling for military restraint, and President Trump’s “America First” policy, that doesn’t consider the moral worth of anything other than American interests.

I would make two points. First, the compromise of national security. He pulled out our troops from the region without notifying the Kurds, without notifying any of our allies. And as a result, a lot of ISIS prisoners have been released. And these folks could be threats now to our interests and to the United States. So, we were winning the war against ISIS. President Trump, with this one action, without giving any notification, has put the national security of this country at risk.

More broadly, we have a moral responsibility in Syria. We called for regime change in 2011. We helped arm some of the opposition groups to Assad. We have struck Assad when he engaged in the chemical attacks against his own people. We have had troops there fighting ISIS. We can’t just get involved in a place and then walk away and not have some moral responsibility. We have a moral responsibility not just to the Kurds who fought with us against ISIS. We have a moral responsibility to accept Syrian refugees. We have a moral responsibility to help rebuild a society that was ravaged by civil war, where we were involved. So, these are the places where President Trump has shown absolutely no consideration for the obligations America has.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to go back to President Trump’s press conference on Wednesday afternoon. He talked about the U.S. military presence abroad and his decision to send additional troops to Saudi Arabia even as he’s withdrawing troops from Syria.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re in many countries, many, many countries. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many. I know the exact number, but I’m embarrassed to say it, because it’s so foolish. We’re in countries — we’re protecting countries that don’t even like us. They take advantage of us. They don’t pay. Nothing. You probably saw — some of you wrote and covered the fact that we’re sending some additional troops to Saudi Arabia. That’s true. And I appreciate the fact that I negotiated for a short period of time, a matter of minutes, with Saudi Arabia, and they’ve agreed to pay for the full cost of all of that deployment, and more, much more.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Trump was later asked about what’s transpired since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria.

JONATHAN KARL: Mr. President, said you withdrew 28 troops.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Twenty-eight. They say it was 28. We thought it was 50, but it was about 28, 26 to 28 troops, all accounted for, nobody injured —

JONATHAN KARL: And look what’s happened since then —

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Listen, all accounted for, nobody injured, nobody missing. It’s really nice.

JONATHAN KARL: But look what’s happened since those troops were withdrawn and since you had that conversation with President Erdoğan.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know what’s happened? No American soldiers have been killed. That’s what’s happened.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Representative Khanna, can you respond to that? I mean, you, yourself, have taken a position asking for the withdrawal, saying the, you know, U.S. military should not be in the Middle East. What do you think President Trump, the Trump administration could have done to safeguard the lives of the Kurds who are now suffering from this Turkish assault? And what kind of pressure could the Trump administration have put on Turkey to ensure the safety of the Kurds?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I have called for responsible withdrawal, but not a withdrawal that is oblivious to human life in Syria or to American interests in Syria. President Trump, at the very first instance, should have notified the Kurds about what our intentions were, and notified our allies. I mean, he did this in a phone call with Erdoğan without even giving the Kurds notice. And, in fact, we were misleading the Kurds to believe that the Americans would have their back.

Second, we have a tremendous amount of leverage with Turkey. We could have gotten a deal with Erdoğan that would have prevented this kind of invasion. We give them military support. We give them economic support. They are a NATO ally. There was no consideration of that with the Trump administration.

But his answer really illustrates what he’s thinking, in that he does not have any concern for non-American life. Here, it’s just a total indifference to the fate of the Kurds who fought with us. That’s not the American tradition. In America, we believe and have a consideration for human rights.

And also I think the president has totally miscalculated in allowing for the resurgence of ISIS, and his actions have led to this precipitous withdrawal. What I think is really going on here is that the president has surrounded himself with war hawks like Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State Pompeo, and Bolton. They don’t agree with his instinct of withdrawal. Even Mattis didn’t. And so he feels constrained, and he’s fighting his own administration. And that leads to rash actions that are destabilizing and hurt human life. It would have been much better if he had found people who had expertise and shared his value of withdrawal and would have been able to do so in a way that would have protected American interests and civilian life.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Congressman Khanna, there seems to be some confusion about exactly how many troops the U.S. intends to withdraw from northern Syria and all of Syria. Trump says 28. What do we know about exact figures and where these troops are going?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I don’t have the details of the exact figures, but what I do know is the withdrawal has already given a green light to Turkey to invade, that there are already stories of the loss of human life. There is the story of thousands and thousands of people being displaced. So whatever action we have already taken has given Turkey the license to go in and begin the displacement of the Kurds. But I will be with our Armed Services and Oversight Committee getting the facts of what the president’s policy now is. Is it a complete withdrawal? Does he intend to leave any troops now still there?

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean that the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also condemned this? I mean, the reason there’s no action on most any issue between the House and the Senate is because the House is Democrat, the Senate is Republican, and so the Senate doesn’t endorse what the House does. Is he going to put a similar measure on the floor? Is there going to be a joint condemnation?

REP. RO KHANNA: I hope he does. I expect the Senate will do something. But we need more than just the condemnation of the president’s actions. We need to have a framework in Congress for dealing with Turkey and making it clear that Turkey’s economic relationship with the United States, their relationship on our military arms sales, are in jeopardy if they don’t immediately stop the invasion, if they don’t stop the displacement of Kurds. And then we need a plan in the Congress about our moral responsibility to take in Syrian refugees, to take in refugees who are Kurds who have been displaced, to figure out what economic assistance we can provide to that area to help rebuild societies that have been devastated in a civil war, where we have been involved.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Congressman Khanna, what about the kinds of sanctions that Trump — the Trump administration has put in place? Are those sufficient? And has there been any discussion of military sanctions? The EU has, of course, imposed a partial arms embargo on Turkey.

REP. RO KHANNA: We have been talking about potential arms sales restrictions to Turkey. It’s something that the Foreign Affairs Committee is discussing and the Armed Services Committee is discussing. I don’t think the sanctions have been sufficient, for the simple reason that the Turkish invasion continues and the displacement continues. This will only be resolved when Turkey stops taking those actions. Unfortunately, as I realized when we did the Yemen War Powers Resolution, which also passed in a bipartisan way in the House and the Senate, to restrict the president from refueling Saudi planes — what I realized then is that the president of the United States has an extraordinary amount of power. There’s only so much that Congress can do. But I think we have to maximize our congressional oversight, which is really about restricting arms sales and economic aid to Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can respond to the reports that we’re hearing, as President Trump talks about the situation being “nice there” in northern Syria because no U.S. troops have died? The reports coming out of Syria, a Turkish airstrike on a civilian caravan in northern Syria Sunday, killing 15 people, including two Syrian Kurdish journalists — Mohammed Hussein Rasho, a reporter for Çira TV, journalist Saad Ahmed of Hawar News. President Trump saying if no U.S. life is lost.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I think some journalist needs to just ask the president bluntly, “Do you believe it matters if non-Americans die? Is that a moral consideration for you? Do you care about lives that are non-American?” And let him come out and say what “America First” foreign policy actually is. Is he saying that nothing has moral worth if it’s not about American interests and American lives? That has never, never been the American tradition. We had a Declaration of Independence that talked about the rights, inalienable rights, of every human being, the dignity of every human being. President Trump is perverting the very essence of American ideals when he makes statements like that. And moreover, this is not just about the loss of Kurdish life. This is not just about the loss of journalists’ overseas lives. This is about the resurgence of ISIS, that our troops fought so hard over the last few years. And those ISIS fighters pose a threat not just to Syria or Turkey or to the Middle East; they pose a threat to the United States.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ozlem, your response?

AMY GOODMAN: Your final.

OZLEM GONER: Well, to add to that, first of all, Trump is trying to make it seem as if he’s taking troops out of a war zone. I mean, there was no war before he withdrew the troops. So his withdrawing of the troops —

AMY GOODMAN: In that area.

OZLEM GONER: — in that area — it was a peaceful area. It was democratic, pluralist, feminist. They had their own system of governing. And the ethnicities that he claims that are fighting were living peacefully. They have developed communes that talked and discussed. It was the promise, the hope for peace for the Middle East. But then, his withdrawal of the troops caused that war. So, he’s making as if he’s taking the U.S. troops out of a war zone. It wasn’t. He triggered this war. He created this war.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

OZLEM GONER: He created this war. And so, he has the responsibility to stop it, which could have been stopped by a no-fly zone. So, even — we are not asking for the troops remaining there forever. We have asked for guarantees, such as no-fly zone, that would prevent this war, which he didn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’ll continue to cover this issue. Ozlem Goner, we want to thank you so much for being with us, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the City University of New York, and Congressmember Ro Khanna of California. Again, our condolences on the death of the Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings. That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our website is democracynow.org.

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Ending Endless War: Andrew Bacevich on How Reckless Use of U.S. Military Power Caused Today’s Crisis

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