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Christiane Amanpour's One-On-One Interview With Defense Secretary Mark Esper; Defense Secretary Says He Was On Call With Turkey's Erdogan. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired October 22, 2019 - 13:30   ET





MARK ESPER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, I don't talk about securing oil fields as much as I talk about denying ISIS access to the oil fields so they can't have revenue to continue their bad behavior.

With regard to deployment, what my aim is to keep my options open, really, the president's options open, so if events change on the ground, whether in northeast Syria or other parts, we have the flexibility to respond to the president's direction.

AMANPOUR: How are you going to have a flexibility to respond to a resurgence of ISIS? As you know, this is a big concern from inside the military, from amongst your allies, for many in the president's party back in the United States, and analysts and politicians all over the world.

All of these years that you've managed to deny them the ability to pose a serious threat, they're now open for business again. And people are very, very concerned.

In fact, General Petraeus said, "This does not end in endless war, it probably prolongs it because this gives ISIS an opportunity for resurgence. This is not a strategic success."

ESPER: Let's look at the action on the ground. Based on the intelligence we have, the reporting we have, of the 11,000 detainees who were in Syria, we've only had reports of a little bit more than 100 that have escaped.

The SDF, and we remain in contact with them, are maintaining guards over the top of the prisons they have control of. So right now, we have not seen this big prison break we all expected. So that's the good news piece.

With regard to the other part, I'll be meeting with my allies, the United States allies, in Brussels in the coming days. We're going to have a specific session on, what do we do with the defeat ISIS campaign now that it's in a new phase to make sure we can maintain pressure on ISIS so it doesn't resurge.

AMANPOUR: Secretary, in a new phase, some would say you have, I don't know, wantonly or willingly ended the success on ISIS. You heard what General Petraeus just said.


AMANPOUR: It's not really a new phase. I mean, the metrics are not about territory, are they? They're about resurgence, regrouping, the ability to do so. And even before this withdrawal of U.S. forces, many in your military and elsewhere were watching a resurgence --

ESPER: I wouldn't classify --

AMANPOUR: -- watching themselves come together.

ESPER: I wouldn't classify it as a resurgence. I have not. What I would say is this. Keep in mind why we partnered with SDF originally going back to 2014. It was to defeat ISIS. We ended up destroying the physical caliphate of ISIS as of March this year.

And the task then is to make sure we maintained the enduring feat. And part and parcel of that is making sure that local security, et cetera, can handle that.

So, yes, we are in a new phase of the defense ISIS campaign. It's to maintain that defeat and maintain that destruction.

AMANPOUR: I'm still confused. The local forces who were making sure that happened were the SDF and those are the forces who, by withdrawing, you have allowed to be victims and targets of the Turkish offensive, which is precisely designed to get him out of the area --


AMANPOUR: -- that you've been stabilizing.

ESPER: The SDF are still in control of the prisons that are under their control. The Turks have told us they have taken control of the prisons that they now have responsibility. And are mission in that area was to train, advise and assist. We weren't guarding prisons out there in that part of the world.

AMANPOUR: I mean, as you know, it's not just about prisons. It's about fighting. The Kurds were your real on-the-ground fighting force.

ESPER: Sure.

AMANPOUR: Tragically, about eight American lives were lost during the fight with ISIS, but nearly 11,000 Kurdish lives were lost.

ESPER: Right. And we were their neighbors and we were their air force. We had mutual interests. The mutual interest was destroying the physical caliphate of ISIS.

AMANPOUR: Correct. And make sure ISIS does not come back as --


AMANPOUR: -- people are worried they will right now. And --


ESPER: And we're all focused on that, to make sure we understand, as we enter this new phase, how do we continue that enduring defeat of Isis.

AMANPOUR: I'm having trouble with the word "enduring."

But let me ask you, first, you say you're going to talk to allies.

ESPER: Sure.

AMANPOUR: Allies are actually quite shocked. And I would be interested to know what they say to you. Because those were your allies, the Kurdish forces on the ground, and they feel utterly betrayed.

You've seen these terrible, tragic pictures. I'm sure no secretary of defense wants to see their allies throwing rocks and rotten fruit at retreating American forces, calling them liars and saying they betrayed them.

I wonder what your -- how do you feel when you see that?

ESPER: Here's what the allies have said, publicly and privately. We all condemn what President Erdogan of Turkey has done. We all opposed it. That is, this irresponsible incursion into northern Syria of what had been happening on the ground receptively. Everybody opposed that.

We'll talk specifically about that as well in the context of what's next with regard to defeat ISIS. I think we'll begin at that point right there.

AMANPOUR: I guess I'm asking, how does it feel to see your allies react to what they see as a bit of a betrayal. Throwing rocks and food at you. How do you react to Russian forces -- and we have pictures of them -- marching nonchalantly into the abandoned --



ESPER: You have to go back to the original reason why we partnered with the SDF -- this is going back to the Obama administration, carried into the Trump administration -- the defeat of ISIS, which resulted in the physical destruction of a caliphate.

We didn't sign up to fight a war to defend the Kurds against a longstanding NATO ally. And we they certainly didn't sign up to help them establish an autonomous free state. That was the conflict that the Turk's put us in between, an advancing Turkish army opposed by the Kurds, elements of the SDF. And at the same time, you had Syrian and Russian forces moving in.

That's not the position in which we want our young Americans servicemembers to be in

AMANPOUR: There's so many bits and bobs to ask you about. First and foremost, the 120-hour cessation of hostilities. Not a cease-fire obviously. You know better than I do, it's not a formal cease-fire. It's a pause. And the president of Turkey has said they're going to wait and see.

I'm going to play this little sound byte.


RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKISH PRESIDENT (through translation): If these promises are not realized, as soon as the 120 hours are over, our operation of Peace Spring will continue more rapidly than before.


AMANPOUR: And he has actually said, furthermore, we will start where we left off and continue to crush the terrorist head. He's talking about the SDF, the Kurds. What do you make of that?

ESPER: Again, we would call on President Erdogan to be more responsible to act prudently. What we've seen, at least the reporting I've heard in the last week's previous 24 hours, is that the cease- fire is largely holding. There is some skirmishing hear and there. But --


AMANPOUR: But it expires tonight.

ESPER: It does. But we're getting reports that the SDF are making good-faith efforts to withdraw from the area in time. And I think if they need a little bit more time, they should be giving a bit more time.

At the end of the day, what we've called upon is for there to be a cease-fire and that we reach a political agreement, a settlement between the parties that can be enduring.

AMANPOUR: Can I read you a couple of things? I ask you, as a military man, you're a fighting soldier. You've done this for your country and actually to protect Saudi Arabia from the invasion

ESPER: Sure.

AMANPOUR: -- of Saddam Hussain. And that was nearly 30 years ago.

There are a lot of U.S. forces, your brave Special Forces, who are telling even FOX News, an ally of President Trump -- we're not talking about anybody else, FOX News -- did they feel ashamed. Did they feel really wounded to see their allies, who they fought alongside with, betrayed in this way. We see an Army captain who talked to the "New York Times, and

basically said, "I joined the Army to prevent genocide, not pave the way for it."

We've also seen the head of the Senate Republicans, the Senate majority, Mitch McConnell, write a very, very pointed op-ed, in which he said, "The combination of U.S. pullback in the Turkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for our country. Even if the five-day cease-fire announced Thursday holds, events of the past week have set back the United States' campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists."

"Unless halted, our retreat will invite the brutal Assad regime in Syria and its Iranian backers to expand their influence."

And, "We are ignoring Russia's efforts to leverage its increasingly dominant position in Syria to amass power and influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

As secretary of defense of the United States, how do you explain that?

ESPER: Look, I understand the sentiments of the soldiers on the ground who fought side by side with the Kurds. The Kurds have been our good partners in the defeat of ISIS. There's a certain bond that happens in combat when you're -- with fellow soldiers of any country. As you said, I experienced it during my time here in the Gulf War. I understand that.

At the end of the day, when you get back up to the 30,000-foot level, the strategic level, you have to ask yourself, at the time President Erdogan decided to cross that border very clearly, that he was going to make that move, I have to be responsible to make sure our soldiers weren't put in harm's way, a 1500-plus army and SDF soldiers in the south, and especially Russians and Syrians.

So I felt, with the recommendations of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we recommended those trips be withdrawn. Eventually, the rest of the forces being withdraw.

I think the broader context is this. Look, it's no surprise President Trump said, coming into office as he campaigned, that he wanted to bring American soldiers and servicemembers home as much as he can, and to the "endless wars," in his words. This is part and parcel of that. And it should come as no surprise to anybody.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Next, the defense secretary talks about what he heard on the now-infamous phone call between Turkey and President Trump.


Plus, we have more on our breaking news. Explosive testimony from a key diplomat in the Ukraine scandal, saying politics was suspected in the holdup of aid to Ukraine. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: The U.S.-brokered cease-fire in Syria is said to expire in a little more than an hour from now. That is when Syrian Kurds must be out of the buffer zone along the border with Turkey. The Kurds have accused the U.S. of abandoning them as Turkey invades Kurdish settlement on the Syrian side of the border.

CNN Chief International Anchor, Christiane Amanpour, just spoke with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper about what is next for U.S. troops leaving the buffer zone.


AMANPOUR: Can I just ask you a personal question.

ESPER: Sure.

AMANPOUR: A professional question. Were you on the phone call that president Trump had with President Erdogan? Did you know what was being discussed between by the two presidents in the hours before the Turks launched their offensive into Syria?

ESPER: Sure. I listened into the phone call, of course. But my experience with that --

AMANPOUR: So you knew what was being discussed?

ESPER: Yes. But my experience goes back to when I first came to office in late July. So two months of so into it. Probably the thing dominating my time more than anything else was working with my counterpart, the defense minister of Turkey, trying to build this safe zone, this security mechanism by which we would do joint patrolling with the Turks to keep a buffer zone between Turkey and the SDF.

And we thought it was going well. We had established a joint operations center in southern Turkey. We were doing ground patrols, air patrols. We got the SDF to agree to back up a little bit.

At some point, the Turks decided it's not moving fast enough, it's not comprehensive enough, whatever the case may be, but saw the pressure building despite our efforts. And eventually --

AMANPOUR: From the Turks.

ESPER: From the Turks. And it was just days before when President Erdogan called President Trump, the minister told me, we'll be coming across, we'll give you a heads up. And when Erdogan spoke to President Trump, he confirmed that, and he notified us that was his intent.

AMANPOUR: So Mitt Romney, as you know, Senator form Utah, "What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain on the annals of American history. Was there no chance for diplomacy here? Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey," he said. You said as much, that that's exactly what happened.

ESPER: Well, look, Turkey is a longstanding NATO ally. We're not going to war against a NATO ally and certainly not in regard to a border that we didn't sign up to defend in the first place. We have to go back to our primary mission: defeat ISIS.

AMANPOUR: You just said you were doing a good job and most people thought you were doing a good job?

ESPER: Everyone but the Turks thought we were doing a good job.

AMANPOUR: Right. Because you were keeping ISIS down and you were a buffer force, correct?

ESPER: I meant, in context of the Turkish government did not feel --

AMANPOUR: I understand.

ESPER: -- we were doing a good enough or fast enough job of safeguarding the safe zone.

AMANPOUR: OK. But strategically, in terms of defeating ISIS, that was a successful buffer zone that had taken a good five to six years.

ESPER: That buffer zone is not related to the defeat of ISIS.

AMANPOUR: Fine. They were buffer forces, would you say?

ESPER: We were trying to build a safe zone between the Turks and Syria.


AMANPOUR: But to keep down ISIS, you were doing quite a good job there.

ESPER: Yes, correct.

AMANPOUR: The president has said, and, of course, it's within his right and the right of any president to end, quote, "endless wars and bring troops home." But you know, as much as I do. that America is full of buffer troops in many parts of the world where war has ended to prevent a reemergence of hospitalities --

ESPER: Right.

AMANPOUR: -- whether it's between North and South Korea, whether it's in Europe and now with Russia, or whether it's else in the Middle East.


ESPER: That's one of the challenges I face as secretary of defense, trying to implement our new national defense strategy, is how do I reposition our forces to deal with the threats of the coming decades, which is China, number one, and Russia, number two.

As I look around the globe, I see our forces tied down in multiple occasions. You step back and American forces easily in 80 to 90 countries around the world. We see we have legal obligations to help defend dozens of countries. And we will honor those.

But what I have to do is think about, how do I reallocate and reposition my forces. At some point, substitute them with other countries so that I can free them up to deal with China again, our principal strategic competitor in the next few decades.

AMANPOUR: Again, of course, since 9/11, radical terrorists from this part of the world has been the principal threat. Your action against ISIS was successful. And now nobody knows what's going to happen next and whether it's unleashed another potential Pandora's box.

ESPER: But the global fight against ISIS has not just isolated to Syria, right? We are fighting ISIS on a day-by-day basis, everywhere from northern Africa all the way to Afghanistan where I was two days ago getting an update on our fight there. ISIS is throughout the region. And our goal is to stay on top of that so that they don't reemerge or resurge in a way that could threaten the homeland.

AMANPOUR: My question, you're already quietly removed several thousand troops from Afghanistan. There's still no peace there, no deal with the Taliban. You're here in Saudi Arabia and you're here in this hangar and you've got Patriot batteries and several thousand troops redeploying here.

Actually, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked the president, you say you want to bring them home. Is Saudi Arabia home, Mr. President? I don't know. Is Saudi Arabia home?

ESPER: A very different situations. In this case, what we're trying to do is prevent a regional congregation initiated by Iran, against many of our longstanding partners. We've been partners with Saudi Arabia for 70-plus years.

As you said, in my world, I've spent seven to eight months in this country helping to defend Desert Shield and Desert Storm. So why we're here, why I deployed additional forces here was to help enable defense of Saudi Arabia. Deter the Iranians.

What we don't want is the Iranians taking action that ends up in an escalatory fight, that we end up with another regional conflict. Nobody wants that.

I think the difference is, if you're trying to make them, between deploying additional forces to Saudi Arabia and the withdrawal of some forces out of northern Syria, two different things, very dramatically different things.

AMANPOUR: But you will forgive people for being quite bewildered, especially people at home, who are saying, OK, you're moving the American forces and allowing the territory to be taken by Iranians and Russians and Assad and all the others in Syria. Yet, you're bringing some here to try to, whatever, confront Iranian forces here.

How does one deploy for a specific reason here while removing and essentially helping the Iranians and the Russians and Assad there? That's confusing.

ESPER: I disagree with your premise. If you look at most of the key players in Syria right now, the Turks, the Syrians, the Russians, us, there's no love

AMANPOUR: The Iranians.

ESPER: -- for ISIS. All oppose ISIS. All want to see the continued defeat of ISIS, first of all.

Secondly --


AMANPOUR: But they have territory now.


AMANPOUR: We see the Russians walking in.

ESPER: -- a lot of territory in Syria --


AMANPOUR: And Iranians are there, too. This is your big enemy.

ESPER: -- beginning as early as 2012, 2013 --


AMANPOUR: They would be Iranians.

ESPER: This would be the point. They keep with the Iranians. Because of the maximum pressure campaign, the Iranians appear very desperate and would be willing, we assess, to start a fight in this region.

We saw the September 14 Aramco attacks we believe were the responsibility of Iran. Other European countries have said the same, that for the first time ever, they struck Saudi Arabia in a state-on- state conflict. What we're trying to do is prevent a growing -- prevent a conflict in this region from growing into something that would really destroy the region.

AMANPOUR: I understand. As you know, many of the president's own party officials in the United States feel this is opening a territory to Irani influence in this region. But anyway, we've talked about that.

I want to ask you lasted about war crimes. There are some horrendous reports of --

ESPER: Sure.

AMANPOUR: -- extrajudicial killings by those associated with the Turkish offensive, whether they're Syrian, Turkish militias --

ESPER: Right.

AMANPOUR: -- or whatever.


You've had "The "New York Times" expert on this who reports about this. "To grab the extent of the crimes, the Arab militias fight for Turkey carrying out in Syria, read the autopsy on the Kurdish politicians, executed a few days ago. Her legs and jaw were broken, she was dragged by her hair until the skin of her scalp fell out and repeatedly shot.

The report -- and we have the autopsy here. It's devastating. And we're hearing there's some fear and concern amongst elements in the Pentagon and others that, who knows, you know, the Pentagon, the United States may be liable for allowing this offensive, for standing by, talking about it.

We understand that white phosphorus is being used against fighters and civilians. We've seen terrible pictures.

What do you say to that? How do you protect your troops from those future allegations?

ESPER: First things first. We didn't allow this offensive to happen. Turkey made a strategic decision to conduct this incursion, despite our opposition. That's number one.

Number two, I've seen reports. They are horrible. If accurate, I assume they are accurate, they're war crimes, as best as I know, in the land war warfare. I think all those need to be followed up on. I think those responsible should be held accountable. In many cases, it would be the government of Turkey should be held accountable. We cannot allow these things to happen.

AMANPOUR: Do you agree with what the president said, these are two forces who don't like each other, they're in the sandbox, and as if in the playground, let them have at it together?

ESPER: This is a conflict whose roots go back over 200 years between the Turks and Kurds. They've been fighting since the early 1980s. That's one of our concerns is, why do we need to be in the middle of this conflict that's going on for so long?

AMANPOUR: That might constitute sitting back. It might constitute talking about it without doing anything to stop it.

ESPER: I don't think that's the case. Certainly, we would welcome an international discussion about this to try and resolve it peacefully. But we have to get to the core of the problem. The core of the problem is extensive and it goes back many years between the Turks and Kurds.

And, I mean, you've probably reported on this in the past as well. You know it better than I do.

AMANPOUR: In fact, right after the first, you saw what happened. Then President Bush urged him to rise up against Saddam Hussein and they then had to flee Saddam's offensive because nobody came to their aid.

These are difficult days.

Secretary Esper, thank you for joining me.

ESPER: Thank you.


KEILAR: And Christiane Amanpour joins me now from Riyadh.

And, Christiane, did you hear a clear foreign policy right now from the U.S. for what to do with Syria, Turkey and Iraq?

AMANPOUR: You know, Brianna, it's complicated, because obviously, as I was trying to put it and tried to get Secretary Esper to explain, how do you. on the one hand. defeat ISIS and sort of be forced to or let up on the pressure cooker? How do you, on one hand, come here to Saudi Arabia to demonstrate at the behest of Saudi Arabia that Iran is going to be confronted while, at the same time, opening up space for them to be very, very prominent and proactive in Syria?

So it is very difficult. As I said, difficult days. A lot in flux and very fluid. It looks like Secretary Esper is trying to make the best of a very bad situation as he explained himself.

Going on now to Brussels to meet with NATO allies with the same questions you just asked me, what is the policy after we've actually mostly defeated ISIS to then make sure they don't come surging back again?

And as you can imagine, allies will be a little wary of promises by the United States given what's happened to the Syrian Kurds who were the main U.S. allies in this fight against ISIS.

KEILAR: And as we've been watching the interview, Vladimir Putin and Erdogan agreed to joint patrols along the Turkey/Syria border. We're seeing how Russia is sort of coming in as the U.S. is leaving. How significant is that?

ESPER: Well, it's very significant. Again I did put it to Secretary Esper because, over the last several days, since the U.S. retreat, you've seen Russians driving in to abandoned U.S. bases. And you've certainly seen Syrian forces of Bashar al Assad come up. And, of course, we not the Turkish forces are coming up form south from Turkey itself. So it is very, very serious.

On the other hand, it is inevitable. Once the U.S. pulled out as a peacekeeping force in that area, all the other who have been sitting there the last many years waiting and waiting and waiting for their chance to get into these zones are doing so right now.

And Russia, needless to say, has wanted a major, major part in this part of the world for the last 30 years. And Syria is it. And it started during the Obama administration when Putin really came in, in force, behind Assad and continues to this day as with Iran behind Assad.

KEILAR: Christiane, thank you for that interview. We appreciate it. And joining us from Riyadh.


We have more on our breaking news. In Washington, one of the main players in the Ukraine scandal, to U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, telling lawmakers today that political investigation may have played a part in the holdup of aid to Ukraine. We'll have reaction from the Hill, next.


KEILAR: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar. This is a special edition of CNN RIGHT NOW.


After days of witnesses dropping bombshells in the impeachment inquiry, the most important witness appears today. America's top diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, is still testifying at this moment.