The general who led the fight against ISIS says Trump's new policy 'breaks that trust' after years of hard fighting

David Choi
Joseph Votel

Associated Press


  • Retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, former head of US Central Command, expressed disappointment with Trump's decision to remove troops as Turkey prepares to launch military operations in northeast Syria.
  • The military order requires US forces to stand aside as Turkey is expected to launch strikes against Kurdish forces.
  • Votel, who oversaw the US's fight against the Islamic State before his retirement earlier this year, described the US decision as "abrupt policy" that appeared to "abandon our Kurdish partners."
  • "It didn't have to be this way," Votel wrote. "The US worked endlessly to placate our Turkish allies."
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Former US Central Command commander and retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel expressed disappointment on Tuesday with the Trump administration's decision to stand down as Turkey prepares to launch military operations in northeast Syria.

The Trump administration's said Sunday that it would move a small contingent of US troops away from Syria's border with Turkey.

Votel, who oversaw the US's fight against ISIS before his retirement earlier this year, described the decision as an "abrupt policy" that appeared to "abandon our Kurdish partners," in a candid column in The Atlantic coauthored with Middle East Institute non-resident fellow Elizabeth Dent.

Several US lawmakers and allies also described it as an abrupt move that would all but assure the deaths of Kurdish partners who led the fight against ISIS. In addition to assistance fighting ISIS, the presence of US troops at the border has been viewed as a deterrent to potential Turkish incursions in the region.

US Marines OIR Syria

Cpl. Gabino Perez/US Marine Corps

Turkey claims the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, and the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces are a threat with links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Turkey-based group that Ankara and the US, among others, have designated a terrorist group.

The tenuous relationship between Turkey, the Kurds, and their mutual partner in the US was evident as US forces have struggled to establish a "safe zone" between the Kurds and Turkey in northern Syria.

Votel stressed in the column that because of the speed of ISIS's spread in Syria in 2014, the US had to go after the terrorist group "quickly and effectively."

This, he writes, led to the US's reliance on 60,000 "battle-hardened" Kurdish forces "fighting for their lives against ISIS." Roughly 11,000 people from the Kurdish militia have died in the conflict.

Read more: 'The President eats his own': Military veterans in Congress unload on Trump for abandoning a US ally in the ISIS fight

"Without it, President Donald Trump could not have declared the complete defeat of ISIS," Votel wrote of Kurdish forces in Syria. Trump has frequently claimed ISIS has been unequivocally defeated.

But the "sudden policy change this week breaks that trust at the most crucial juncture and leaves our partners with very limited options," Votel added.

Senior US military officials denied the characterization of the announcement as abrupt and said they were consulted in the days before the move.

A senior US State Department official also said that it did not "support" Turkey's looming operation "in any way, shape or form," according to The Washington Post.

Donald Trump Army West Point

REUTERS/Leah Millis

On Tuesday morning, Trump denied the US was abandoning the Kurds but also made glowing remarks about Turkey, which he described as a valued trading partner.

"Any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency," Trump tweeted. "We are helping the Kurds financially/weapons!"

Despite the US's portrayal of the development, the SDF called it a potential "humanitarian catastrophe."

"All indications, field information and military assembly on the Turkish side of the border indicate that our border areas will be attacked by Turkey," the SDF said on Twitter. "This attack will spill the blood of thousands of innocent civilians because our border areas are overcrowded."

Although the US has offered assurances it will not abandon the Kurds, "the damage may already be done," Votel said.

"It didn't have to be this way," Votel added. "The US worked endlessly to placate our Turkish allies."

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