Syrian Emergency Task Force Head On Syria Conditions
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Throughout this weekend, we are going to continue to examine President Trump's decision to pull approximately 2,200 U.S. troops out of Syria. Now a perspective from a Syrian-American who's been deeply involved in humanitarian relief efforts over the course of the long war there. He is Mouaz Moustafa He's executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. He goes back and forth between Syria and the U.S. every few months. We've been hearing from him every few months to hear about conditions in Syria. And he's here with us now, once again, in our studios in Washington, D.C.
Mouaz, thanks so much for joining us once again.
MOUAZ MOUSTAFA: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So the president said that the U.S. goal in Syria was to defeat ISIS. And he says that ISIS has been defeated, so now it's time for those U.S. troops to come home. What is your perspective on that?
MOUSTAFA: Speaking specifically to the president's goals in Syria, ISIS has not been defeated in Syria. ISIS, as a matter of fact, has conducted counterattacks near Hajin in the Euphrates River valley in Syria lately, probably emboldened by this very public and abrupt decision.
MARTIN: So what would happen, in your opinion, if the U.S. pulled out entirely? And you know, you're speaking from the experience of traveling back and forth over the course of - what? - the last eight years.
MOUSTAFA: Eight years...
MOUSTAFA: ...That's right. The United States leaving Syria has very serious repercussions for our national security and for the possibility of allowing humanitarian atrocities to take place. I think one thing that's really important to remember, aside from the humanitarian side of things, is that if we pull out the way we are, we are ceding 30 percent of the country - the areas that are rich in oil, fertile soil, alongside the river valley - to Iran and, at the same time, allowing ISIS to resurge. So probably our two main adversaries in the region are the ones celebrating right now. And we're doing this without anything in return.
MARTIN: Well, wait. Let's not glide past the humanitarian concerns that you have because that is your main focus there. What is your concern about what effect this would have?
MOUSTAFA: The civilian population in Syria have been terrorized by the Assad regime alongside Iran and Russia - and ISIS - for the past years. And if we leave, I'll give you one specific example. There is a base called Tanf alongside the Syria-Jordan-Iraqi border. It's really strategically important for us because it sits on the Damascus-Baghdad highway that's very important for Iran to support its terrorist activities in the region. But there are 50,000 people in a camp called Rukban that sits only a few miles away from our base. I've been in touch with the camp in Rukban for a long time because they're in this desolate desert camp, and we're trying to provide them humanitarian aid.
But in conversations, despite their miserable conditions, they would tell me - and this is before the withdrawal announcement. They would tell me that, thank God we are alive today. We are safe today from torture and death because of God and because of this American base that's here. They keep us company. They give us security. And this base has only about 200 U.S. servicemen and women. It's a very small footprint. They're not in danger. You know, they're not in combat situations. But they are providing an immense support for these people because it allows this camp to stay away from the grasp of Iran and the Assad regime that have no mercy, that will torture many of these people to death, not just simply kill them.
MARTIN: So your view is that anybody who was in any way considered to have been allied with the United States is now in danger?
MARTIN: And finally, what would you say to people who say that the U.S. really is ineffectual there, that the U.S. really hasn't played any significant role there, that there aren't enough troops to really make a difference and, in essence, they've already ceded that territory. What do you say to that, there really are no goals that are being accomplished?
MOUSTAFA: I would say that they're wrong. Look; we have 2,000 or so amazing, brave American soldiers. We have been able, with this small footprint which is also a small bill comparatively, to be able to repel ISIS and keep Iran and Assad away and have some sort of way that could be conducive to a political process that can end this horrible crisis. And by leaving completely, we are ceding the oil-rich areas to Iran, we are allowing ISIS to resurge, we are leaving these 50,000 individuals with no plan but to be arrested by the regime and have Iranian forces come in. And we are also leaving the table, making Syria's fate and the region's fate to the hands of Bashar al-Assad, Putin, the Iranians and Turkey.
And beyond that, it also will allow the Assad regime to engage in a major military offensive in Idlib that it has been planning for so long, and this is important. There are 4 million civilians, 1 million of them children. The Assad regime now will focus on an offensive there that could double the refugees in Europe. All of these are a very high price to pay for the low-cost, effective force that we had on the ground that did miracles.
MARTIN: That's Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. That's a Syrian-American group that's been assisting with humanitarian efforts in Syria.
Mouaz, thanks so much for talking to us.
MOUSTAFA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.