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Jack Keane, Retired 4-Star General, On Trump's Strategy On Syria, ISIS And Turkey


Despite sporadic fighting this morning, President Trump says things are going, quote, "very, very well" in northern Syria a day after the U.S. brokered a ceasefire between Turkey and Kurdish forces.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have ISIS totally under guard. Turkey is also guarding separately. They're watching over everything. So you have the Kurds, who we're dealing with and are very happy about the way things are going, I must say.

CORNISH: The president's decision to pull U.S. forces from northern Syria has come under criticism from members of both parties and from a number of retired generals, one of whom joins us now. Jack Keane is a retired four-star general and former vice chief of staff of the United States Army.

Welcome back to the program.

JACK KEANE: Delighted to be here. Thank you.

CORNISH: Does the president's assessment actually match with what you are hearing? Because I understand you're in touch with Kurdish commanders.

KEANE: Yes, there are ceasefire violations that are taking place. Some of them have been serious. There's a thought in the State Department that some of that may indeed be by one or two of Erdogan's generals who are purposely doing it because they want the ceasefire to fail so they can take control of the safe zone that the Kurds are in by military force, which is what they were doing previously.

CORNISH: Right. I mean, are you hearing that the Kurds are happy with this current state of play?

KEANE: The Kurds are not happy with the U.S. decision to withdraw, and they've expressed themselves very clearly. General Mazloum does agree with the ceasefire. He's the head of the YPG, or the Syrian Kurds, and he does agree to move his YPG forces from the two contested towns some 30 miles to the south. He does not agree - and he's adamant - that he has no intention to move all of the Syrian Kurds away from the border some 30 miles to the south. That would be hundreds of thousands of people, and that would be an incredible humanitarian operation.

CORNISH: Another issue - you said in recent days that there's, quote, "no doubt" that ISIS would return after the U.S. pullout from Syria. Do you take any comfort in the president's words today that ISIS is, quote, "totally under guard?"

KEANE: No. Actually, ISIS has been resurging for some months before the president's decision to withdraw. They're operating as a terrorist network. The administration special envoy to Syria believes there's 18,000 ISIS fighters between Iraq and Syria, and we have 10,000 fighters under guard by the Syrian Kurds. That's what the president is referencing. What we don't want to have happen is prison outbreaks. That would give ISIS a formidable force, and there'd be no doubt that they would return with some degree of significance.

CORNISH: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he's going to Brussels to talk about the way ahead for fighting ISIS, but with U.S. and allied troops gone, how does the U.S. do that?

KEANE: Well, that's going to be challenging. I mean, how are we going to be able to keep our foot on the throat of ISIS without U.S. troops on the ground?

CORNISH: I want to ask you one more thing in context of you being a decorated combat veteran. You know, there are those fighting on the ground who have harsh words for this U.S. policy. Some have told NPR this is an embarrassment, that it's unethical, that they're ashamed. Looking back, does this remind you in any way of Vietnam - right? - the idea of troops in the fields complaining about their bosses back in Washington?

KEANE: Well, I think when you're fighting side-by-side with allies like that and dealing with fear on a daily basis and the burdens that close combat really is - that's what I did when I was a youngster in the army, so I have great empathy for that. And certainly, those feelings are very understandable, and I think it had to do also a lot with the suddenness of the decision as opposed to working out a timeline, a schedule, preparation that needs to be done. What's the alternative options that are available to us? And something that could be worked out over several months - I think we would have had a different reaction from our troops.

CORNISH: Retired four-star General Jack Keane. He serves as chairman of the Institute for the Study of War.

Thank you for your time.

KEANE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.