Tulsi Gabbard’s regime change narrative “completely false,” an interview with political science professor and Syria Expert Wendy Pearlman.


[The Fire Alarm Theme by Tenny Tsang]

Welcome to the very first episode of The Fire Alarm from North by Northwestern. I am Roman Raies, and today we are discussing what President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw 1,000 troops from Northern Syria means for Syrians, the U.S. and everyone in the region.

Since his 2016 campaign, ending the U.S. policy of being the “world’s police” and  “bringing the troops home” have been hallmarks of Trump’s message.

One of these regions where U.S. troops have been stationed is Syria. Troops were first sent there in 2015 to fight Islamist extremism alongside Kurdish allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are considered to be one of the most effective forces against Islamist extremism to have ever existed.

In December of 2018, Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 troops in Syria, declaring that the war against ISIS had already been won. This ignored advice from civilian and military advisors who warned that it could destabilize the region.

In October 13th of this year, Trump decided to withdraw nearly all of the remaining 1,000 U.S. troops stationed Northern Syria, a move which once again drew widespread criticism from Republicans, Democrats and our Kurdish allies, who called it a betrayal. In anticipation of this move, the Syrian Democratic Forces formed an uneasy alliance with Syrian Dictator, Bashar Al Assad.

Since then, Turkey, which opposes the SDF’s attempt to establish a Kurdish led, self governing region, has begun a vicious bombing and ground troop campaign in parts of northeastern syria controlled by the SDF, plunging the area into chaos. Tens of thousands of residents are fleeing south, several major towns and hospitals have been abandoned, and without U.S. forces there to aid Kurdish allies, ISIS militants have broken out of Kurdish-run prisons.

I interviewed Northwestern professor of political science Wendy Pearlman to discuss what led us to this situation.

Pearlman: Now, if the Turks, the Turkish forces went into northeast Syria and there was only the Kurdish forces because the U.S. forces are no longer there, and the Assad forces and the Russian forces were no longer there, then I think the Kurdish forces would be at tremendous vulnerability before the invading Turkish forces. I think it's because, precisely because of that, that the Syrian Democratic Forces reached out to make a new alliance with the Assad regime. Now, the Assad regime, itself, they're war criminals that carried out tremendous violence, it's a dictatorship that has committed all sorts of crimes against humanity. And there's a long-standing conflict between the Kurds, and the Assad regime. So this is an alliance of convenience. Many are saying it's a military alliance, rather than a political alliance, there's still major differences in the Kurdish hopes and aspirations and the Assad regime’s interest and Russia's interests, but you have different players, all of which want different things. And their interests overlap in some respects, and are in contrast at other respects. And it's a shifting situation in which different parties are going to try to advance their own interests as much as possible. And if there comes to be at some juncture, a confluence of interest between two parties, they pursue that, and for that the Kurds that see their options are violence from the Turks and making agreement with the Assad regime that they hate, they've chose the Assad regime and Russia which will then take advantage of that opportunity for the Assad regime to re-conquer this territory in northeast Syria, which had effectively slipped from its control for several years. Russia is taking advantage of the opportunity to reassert itself as the dealmaker, as the most important superpower in the Middle East, now that the United States is showing less and less interest in being an active party. So different parties are getting their interest. The Turks want the Kurds, far from the border, the Assad regime wants to retake territory. Russia wants to support the Assad regime, and also become a real player and the Kurds don't want to be slaughtered. And that's what we have seen, essentially, unfold in the latest agreements that are being made.

Raies: Right, and, if I'm not mistaken, the conflict started mostly after 2011 after the Arab Spring.

Pearlman: Yeah. Yeah, that's the context, so you know the Arab Spring begins with a protest in Tunisia and then Egypt and spread to other countries, and there was also a popular uprising in Syria, of Syrians going out into the streets and calling for Democratic change, calling for freedom, calling for an end to corruption – calling basically for reform, not even the overthrow of the Assad regime but wanting greater freedoms, and the Assad regime responded to those peaceful protests with tremendous violence. Protests remained peaceful for many months. Eventually the opposition also took up arms against the onslaught of this of this state, wanting to crush it. Other non-state and state actors became involved in the very chaotic situation. And in the context of this you had Al-Qaeda, created a presence, ISIS emerged as its own group and Kurdish groups also formed militias and armed and became players in this fragmented situation with many different players. So, this is all the evolution of a violence-complicated situation since 2011.

Raies: And what is the characteristic of Assad's regime, does he try to keep his people's opinion in favor of him? Is it common for Syrian civilians to be pro-Assad? Or what I'm saying is, does anyone view the opposition as the problem?

Pearlman: Yeah, it's split. It's a complicated war in which you have many Syrians who went out into the streets wanting, as I said before, calling for reform – they weren't even calling for the overthrow of the regime. They were just, it was a security state in which the government can basically arrest anybody they wanted on no cause, there was an enormous problem of, there were, you know, 10s of thousands disappeared and tortured and political imprisonment. There was rampant corruption, nothing going to get done unless you pay bribes, and you had enough people went out into the streets just as they did in Tunisia and Egypt and said, ‘We want a better, freer, society. We want rule of law. We want accountability.’ And you had a regime that responded basically saying it would make no real concessions, no real power sharing, and it would use force to stamp out that movement. Now, so there were great numbers that wanted change. At the same time, there were always some loyalists who stuck with the regime, and some because they benefited from that status quo. One. Two, there were some who are afraid that should the regime collapse, the alternative would be even worse. The regime, always, for decades has presented itself as a protector of religious minorities. So the majority in Syria is Sunni Arab Muslim, but there are other religious and ethnic minorities, and because the Assad family is itself from a religious minority, it has often tried to portray itself as a protector of other religious minorities, like itself, and has used real techniques of fear mongering essentially to communicate to the public that should this Sunni Arab majority come to power, it might institute Islamic law and be extremists and they're funded by Saudis and they want to ruin Syria's secular, national way of life. So for that reason, especially many religious minorities stuck with the regime, although they all know also noticed, were convinced the regime was corrupt and repressive, they were afraid that the alternative, should the region collapse, would be even worse, and the regime worked very deliberately to build that fear. So you have some people who support the regime because they're part of the regime. Others, out of fear, uncertainty. Also a portion of the population simply sort of put their head down, they're not with one side or the other. They're simply afraid and they want to get by. And they don't want to be caught on the losing side and be punished for it, because the opposition's paid an enormous price of over half a million dead, of 12 million people displaced, tens of thousands disappeared. You know there were people who didn't want to get caught on the wrong side and pay a price for themselves and their family. So yes, there are some who still remain in favor of the regime, and there are others who are against it. And there's a whole lot in the middle that are just hoping for life to go back to.

Raies: Right. But I've read that although the Syrian Democratic Forces have also committed some human rights abuses. I've read that the Syrian Kurds and the Kurdish-controlled, or partially controlled regions I guess it's not they're not recognized by Assad, but I've read, they also portrayed themselves as defenders of religious liberty, so is that characterization self characterization accurate?

Pearlman: There have been abuses on all sides, so there have been ethnically or religious – so there are some who have accused some of the Kurdish forces to have forced Arabs from their homes and things of that sort. So there are accusations and there are abuses by every single party in this conflict. There is for sure, no bigger human rights violation in the Assad regime, right, that is that is definitive. It has killed and it has tortured the most, and it is the party responsible for the most deaths, both the Assad regime and its international backers, like the Russian Air Force that's been involved in destroying cities and so forth.

Raies: Okay, I'm gonna move to ask about Tulsi Gabbard who made a pretty interesting stance at the last Democratic debate by [insinuating] that the conflict is really rooted in U.S. efforts for regime change and if the U.S. simply stays out, then this, the violence we're seeing today, would not be occurring. Is there any legitimacy to that claim?

Pearlman: Zero. I mean, I was stunned when I heard her words, it, it sounded like 100% Assad regime propaganda or Russian propaganda. To me, this is not any sort of regime change operation, what you had was a genuine grassroots popular uprising of Syrian citizens who wanted better lives. The United States did not start that uprising. Not only did it not start it, it did not help it or defend it in any real way. I would say the problem was not that the U.S. intervened too much to overthrow Assad. If anything, my own view is that the U.S. intervened too little as we basically sat back and watched the Assad regime slaughter people with chemical weapons, with barrel bombs, with every imaginable weapon. And we did too little to defend defenseless civilians against the full weapons in the arsenal of an army. There's nothing that civilians can do to protect themselves from bombs from above, they're being bombed by airplanes and helicopters. We watched it. We know it. We've watched it day by day for over eight years and have done basically nothing. So, to say that the U.S. has led a regime change operation in Syria for me is, is completely the opposite of reality.


Since I interviewed Professor Pearlman, not much has been done to help defend our longtime allies, the Kurds. However, U.S. troops have increased their presence in Eastern Syria’s oil-rich region to “prevent the oil fields from falling back into the hands of ISIS or other destabilizing actors,” according to a U.S. Defense official interviewed by the Washington Post.

Thank you for listening, this is The Fire Alarm from North by Northwestern Audio. I am Roman Raies.