Democratic Presidential Debate: Candidates Attack Trump's Syria Withdrawal, Betrayal of Kurds

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Democratic presidential hopefuls during the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential election at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on October 15, 2019.
Democratic presidential hopefuls during the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential election at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on October 15, 2019. Credit: AFP

WASHINGTON - Several Democratic presidential candidates attacked President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria during a televised debate on Tuesday night. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a centrist candidate, invoked Israel into the discussion by saying: "Think about our ally Israel, what do they think now?"           

While the different candidates criticized Trump’s decision, the contents of their criticism and their own suggestions regarding Mideast policy, showed the clear difference between the party’s centrist candidates, such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar, and those more on the left such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

The discussion over Syria was a short part of the three-hour long debate, which featured 12 candidates on one stage. Klobuchar attacked Trump for abandoning America's Kurdish allies in Syria, and warned of the implications this would have on other U.S. allies in the Middle East. "Donald Trump is not true to our allies," she said. Klobuchar also called Israel "a beacon of democracy" in the region.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has been rising in the polls recently and is either first or second in most polls published since the summer, also attacked Trump - but at the same time, she clarified that she would also withdraw American forces from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. At some point Warren said "I don't think we should have troops in the Middle East," a position that goes even beyond Trump's withdrawal, if implemented.

Warren said, however, that "we need to do it the right way, the smart way," unlike how Trump has managed the Syria withdrawal over the past week. Warren also accused Trump of "sucking up to dictators," and betraying American allies.

During the debate, an argument on stage broke out between two military veterans who are running but currently are polling in single digits - Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana. Gabbard is known for her isolationist foreign policy views, and for opposing U.S. military intervention of any sort in Syria. In 2017 she made headlines by visiting Damascus and meeting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

Gabbard, who served in Iraq, stated at the debate that "Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hands, but so do many of the politicians in our country from both parties who have supported this ongoing regime change war in Syria."

She repeated the phrase "regime change war" several times. Basically arguing that the presence of U.S. troops in Syria was part of an attempt to bring down Assad's regime, contradicting the official explanation provided by the U.S. government and the fact that for the past eight years, the U.S. has only made two ineffective strikes against the regime, and has focused instead on combating ISIS.

Buttigieg replied directly by saying - "The slaughter going on in Syria is not the consequence of American presence, it is the consequence of American withdrawal and betrayal." Buttigieg expressed support for keeping a small, limited number of U.S. Special Forces and intelligence officers in northern Syria, in order to fight against ISIS and "prevent a genocide" of the Kurds and other minorities. "Our soldiers are feeling for what is done," Buttigieg said regarding Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has led in most polls of the nomination so far, called Trump's withdrawal decision "shameful." Biden also expressed support for leaving in place a limited number of troops in the region and also to give them air support if necessary.

That was the policy of the Obama administration during 2015 and 2016, at the height of the U.S. battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria

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