Editor’s note: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, serves on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees. He is a frequent and influential voice on international affairs having served stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. Talk Business & Politics editor-in-chief Roby Brock conducted an eight-minute phone interview with Cotton on Thursday (Oct. 17) morning.
Roby Brock: First and foremost, I’m waking up to find out that Rep. Elijah Cummings passed away overnight. You served in the House with him. Do you have any comments on his passing?
Sen. Tom Cotton: I was saddened to see the news about Elijah’s passing. I knew that he had been struggling with health problems. I didn’t know Elijah well because we didn’t serve on a committee together in my two years in the House, but we got to know each other a little bit on the House floor. And although our politics were different, he was always a very cheerful, jovial man who was committed to public service. So my sympathies are extended to his family during a difficult time.
Brock: Let’s talk about Syria, which has been dominating the news this week. Obviously, with your work on foreign affairs and armed forces and your military background, I expect you will have some strong opinions on this. Lindsey Graham has described the U.S. pullout as the “biggest mistake” of Trump’s presidency. The House just yesterday rebuked the President in a joint resolution on a pretty broad bipartisan vote. Do you support the President’s decision to pull out of Syria?
Cotton: Turkish President Erdogan apparently gave President Trump certain assurances two weekends ago. Now it would appear, not surprisingly given his record, that President Erdogan did not uphold those assurances. So the challenge that the President faced, that we only had a couple of dozen troops in the area that Turkey has been planning to conduct these military operations for two or three months, and he obviously did not want those troops to be in harm’s way if Turkey was going to proceed with this operation.
It’s unclear whether President Erdogan would have proceeded had those troops remained there. In retrospect, I would say, we could have maintained at least our control of the skies over Eastern Syria, which if it wouldn’t have stopped Erdogan from moving into Syria at least it would have significantly raised the cost and perhaps deterred what we’ve seen over the last five or six days without putting those American troops potentially in harm’s way.
Brock: The President was asked about this on Wednesday and he basically said that this was not an area of concern for the U.S. Yet, he sent the Secretary of State and the Vice President over there for some sort of commitments from Erdogan, who said he’s not going to meet with them. How does that strike you in terms of the President saying that this territory, that area is not of concern to the U.S.?
Cotton: I think the latest news is that Erdogan is about to meet with them, which I would expect a NATO ally to do when the President dispatches the Vice President and the Secretary of State.
Syria is not a part of our core national security interest. It’s certainly not the kind of threat that say China is in the long term. But we do have two very strong interests in Syria. One is to prevent the return of the Islamic State that threatens our people and our safety. Two is to prevent Iran from militarizing its foothold in Syria to use as a platform against our allies, countries like Israel.
We have effectively over the last few years partnered with groups like the Syrian Democratic Forces to protect those interests without having a large military footprint in the region. Now, I understand where Turkey is coming from. That the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Syrian Kurds are politically affiliated with a Turkish Kurdish organization that is both a separatist group and a designated terrorist group, under both the Turkish and American governments.
That’s why Turkey doesn’t want to have an autonomous enclave of this Kurdish group on its border. The President has been trying to work with Turkey, as has our department and our troops on the ground, to address those legitimate security concerns of Turkey, without undermining our two main interests, which are preventing the return of the Islamic State and stopping Iran from militarizing its foothold in Syria.
Brock: I can only go on what I can read from a variety of different sources. It sounds like that area would be an area of concern for us. It sounds like there were ISIS fighters being held there by the Kurds, who were friendly to us. And it sounds like they have been released now. That strikes me as it should be an area of tremendous concern.
Cotton: I don’t want to confirm or deny the status of ISIS prisoners. I’ve seen some media reports, but also some classified reporting. And I don’t want to mix the two up. So I’ll just say, that I agree of course, that it is part of that first interest we have of preventing the return of the Islamic State to prevent ISIS prisoners from being released.
I know the President has been in continued consultation since the Turkish operation began, with the Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, urging him not to abandon those prisons to allow forces to stay behind, to secure them. I don’t want to go any farther into what’s actually happening on the ground. I’ll just say that, obviously, we want to maintain positive control over ISIS prisoners. That’s one of the two main interests that we have, preventing the return of the Islamic State. Obviously that means not letting ISIS prisoners go.
Brock: How do you fix the situation at this point? I know there’s some talk about sanctions and they’re being very strong. But that takes time to pass. That takes time to implement. It takes time to feel that. From my layman’s seat here in Arkansas, this is beyond something that sanctions are going to reverse in terms of a decision of this magnitude.
Cotton: It won’t be easy. The best possibility we have right now is the diplomatic trip that the Vice President and Secretary of State have made to try to reinforce to President Erdogan the consequences he faces, not just from President Trump’s executive order based sanctions, but from new Congressional sanctions, from European actions that have already taken place, like the cutoff of most arms sales, and the broad international condemnation that Turkey has faced.
What we want to do is stop the Turkish operation. Kind of restore the status quo ante. One way to do that is to reassure Turkey that we understand the concerns they have about having an autonomous Syrian Kurd enclave on their border and that we are willing to take steps to address that.
Brock: So I guess just to go full circle here, do you consider this order by the President, was this a “mistake,” as Senator Graham has called it?
Cotton: We ought not to have relied on the assurances of President Erdogan that he would avoid widespread civilian casualties or that he would guarantee the security of those ISIS prisoners. I understand as the Commander-in-Chief why the President was not willing to gamble with the lives of some Green Beret forces that had no capability of stopping the Turkish military operation. However, I think in retrospect, if we at least had preserved our air superiority in Eastern Syria, it might have given President Erdogan serious pause by increasing the costs and the uncertainty of the military operation.