Tulsi Gabbard clashes with Democratic rivals over 'Syrian regime change war'

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran long known for her controversial positions on foreign policy, clashed with fellow Democrats during Tuesday night’s fourth Democratic debate, and called on Sen. Elizabeth Warren to join her in condemning what she called a “regime change” war in Syria.

President Trump’s sudden decision last Sunday to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria paved the way for a Turkish invasion, and has been widely criticized for abandoning the Kurdish allies who fought alongside U.S. forces against the Islamic State.

While conceding that President Trump “has the blood of the Kurds on his hands,” Gabbard also blamed “many of the politicians in this country” as well as many in the media “who have supported this regime change war.” She did not elaborate on specific Democratic policies of support for regime change, and former Vice President Joe Biden said that regime change “has not been the policy.”

Yet Gabbard was mostly alone in appearing to support the sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, even from candidates like Warren, who have expressed concern about U.S. military intervention abroad. Sen. Warren agreed that the U.S. should “get out of the Middle East” but argued that an abrupt departure is not the way to do it. “We have to do it the right way,” she said.

“In Syria, [Trump] has created a bigger-than-ever humanitarian crisis,” she said. “We need to get out of this but we need to do it through a negotiated solution, there is no military solution.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a former military officer who served in the Middle East, directly challenged Gabbard’s conclusions. “I think that is dead wrong,” he said. “The slaughter going on in Syria ... it’s a consequence of withdrawal and betrayal by this president.”

He suggested that a small group of Special Forces operators supported by intelligence officers are the only thing standing between “genocide and a resurgence of ISIS.” He said that Trump, by pulling troops out of Syria, “is taking away what makes America, America.”

Gabbard asked Buttigieg whether he supported “having U.S. troops in Syria for an indefinite period of time.” Buttigieg responded that it’s possible to “put an end to endless war without embracing Trump’s policy,” though he did not elaborate on a specific plan to withdraw troops from Syria over time.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Last Sunday evening, the White House quietly announced the United States would be withdrawing from northern Syria, making way for a Turkish invasion. The move effectively abandoned Kurdish allies in the region, and risked setting loose thousands of Islamic State prisoners.

The announcement quickly drew international and domestic outrage, including from blindsided European allies who warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis. Even U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch Trump ally, told reporters he was “gravely concerned” about the U.S. response to the ongoing Syrian civil war as well as the decision to expose Syrian Kurds to an imminent Turkish offensive.

Trump took to Twitter to defend his decision Monday morning, arguing that the U.S. “was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days” and that it was time to let stakeholders in the region, including “Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and the Kurds,” to “figure the situation out.”

He threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy if its military did “anything off limits.” But just days after Trump’s announcement, Turkish air and land forces initiated the country’s latest military operations in Syria, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” including launching airstrikes on Syrian border towns.

Turkey has announced a plan to create a 32-kilometer “safe zone” in the border region for 1 million Syrian refugees, a strategy Human Rights Watch’s director of crisis and conflict division, Lama Fakih, called “woefully misguided and dangerous — and bound to fail” because of the potential for increased displacement and danger for civilians.

Another major area of concern is what will happen to the thousands of Islamic State-linked prisoners held by the Kurdish-led armed group called the Syrian Defense Force in informal detention centers in northeast Syria. At least some of those prisoners have reportedly already escaped, a concern highlighted Tuesday night by Sen. Kamala Harris, who said Trump was giving ISIS a “get out of jail free card.”

Gabbard’s staunch opposition to the deployment of U.S. troops abroad has long made her as an outlier on foreign policy issues, even among Democrats. Gabbard during the debate lashed out at those who have labeled her as an “apologist” for Syrian President Bashar Assad and a “Russian asset,” calling those descriptions “completely despicable.”

Yet the Tuesday night debate demonstrated, again, that even the most progressive candidates have sought to create distance between themselves and the fallout from Trump’s decision.

Warren said that Trump’s withdrawal was giving ISIS “a foothold, a new lease on life.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders went as far as saying that Turkey, a member of NATO, “is not a U.S. ally when they invade another country and engage in mass slaughter.”


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