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Situation In Northern Syria Is A Work In Progress, Coates Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump announced yesterday that he is lifting sanctions on Turkey because Turkey agreed to what he called a permanent cease-fire in northern Syria. The president did go on to say that, quote, "permanent in that part of the world is somewhat questionable." But he made clear that he believes the Turkish military offensive is over, and that is a victory for the United States.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today's announcement validates our course of action with Turkey that only a couple of weeks ago was scorned. And now people are saying, wow, what a great outcome. Congratulations. It's too early to me to be congratulated, but we've done a good job. We've saved a lot of lives.

KING: Now, we should note at this hour that Kurdish forces say Turkey is not honoring the cease-fire. Earlier, I talked about the president's policy with Victoria Coates. She's the deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for Middle Eastern and North African affairs. And I asked her about the president calling the current situation in northern Syria, quote, "a great outcome."

VICTORIA COATES: Well, I think what you also heard the president say is it's too soon for congratulations and questioned the nature of permanent in that - in that area of the world. So you know, this is definitely a fragile situation. It's a work in progress, but we certainly did not see the humanitarian catastrophe that many feared 10 days ago.

KING: OK. Yes, that's fair. There were lives lost in Turkey's incursion into northeastern Syria. And now, at this point, Russian forces will be patrolling areas where U.S. forces used to be. Now, again, with the acknowledgment that it's too early for congratulations, this seems like a victory for Russia, not for the United States.

COATES: Make no mistake about it. I mean, a half a million lives have been lost in Syria over the last five, six years. So we should take all of that extremely seriously. And of course, Russia has been present in Syria in force for - ever since our predecessors invited them in to resolve the chemical weapons situation five years ago. So none of that is anything new in our opinion.

KING: But let's talk about 2019. And again, Russian forces will now be patrolling areas where U.S. forces used to be. Many people say this is shifting the balance of power in that region to Russia and that is a loss for the United States. What do you say to that?

COATES: I think that that's the 30-kilometer zone on the border of Turkey. If the Turks are comfortable having the Russians that close to their border, you know, that's an issue for them. But as I said, I mean, the Russians have been present in force in Turkey for five years. So I don't think this is a significant shift at all.

KING: The U.S. is not worried about losing influence in the region?

COATES: I mean, we are always concerned about our influence in the region. But you're talking about a 30-kilometer strip of land in northeast Syria on the border of Turkey. I don't think that's a game-changer.

KING: OK. President Trump has noted that the U.S. never gave the Kurds a commitment that we'd, quote, "stay for 400 years and protect them." He's made this point repeatedly. Yesterday on NPR, we talked to Sinam Mohamad of the Syrian Democratic Council, and here's what she told us.

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SINAM MOHAMAD: I mean, we know that the U.S. will not be staying in Syria forever. We know that. But we hope that they will stay unless the stability will be there, unless the - to stop Turkish aggression to the area, unless we end ISIS. And this will not happen till now.

KING: OK. So she's acknowledging, we didn't expect you guys to stick around forever. But the Kurds now feel unprotected. They were surprised by this. And it did lead to chaos for them. How does the White House respond to that?

COATES: Well, obviously, we've worked very closely with our Kurdish allies. They've been a terrific partner in the fight against ISIS. That partnership will continue. It's why the president has been in close public contact with General Mazloum - with the head of the SDF, which is unprecedented. We - then they're already in close contact with our counterparts across the board. It's why the president is leaving a residual force to assist the Kurds in securing the oil fields, leaving a force at Al-Tanf. So I think - I think her concerns are heard by Washington, and we're responding, accordingly.

KING: Victoria Coates is deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for Middle Eastern and North African affairs. Ms. Coates, thank you for taking the time this morning.

COATES: Thank you, Noel.

KING: I want to turn now to White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, who was listening in to that conversation. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what did you hear there from Ms. Coates about the White House's position that stood out to you?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, I mean, she is following, obviously, the administration line. President Trump, as you noted, said it was a victory. But as you also noted, that - you know, there's still a lot of questions about how meaningful this is. I did find that she gave a very sober early response right off the bat, said that it was very clear that this is still a very fragile situation. And that is something that is very - still, a lot of people are talking about.

Make no mistake; there are a lot of lives lost. But as you noted, Russia did gain. And the United States is turning over a lot of, you know, control over to Russia based on the agreement that Russia and Turkey made to reach an agreement to do joint patrols of that area.

KING: Ms. Coates, of course, did not sound terribly concerned about that, which was interesting. President Trump is taking credit for a cease-fire. You know, he'd been facing a lot of criticism, even from his staunchest allies. Do these moves that he's been making to sort of calm things down, do they help him?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, I was talking with a Republican last night about that. And he said Republicans are still mad about that, you know? So this is really to be seen. And look: Yesterday, Trump is not backing down. Even when he needs Republican support on impeachment, he has not relented in his criticism of past Republican foreign policy. Those who saw and listened to his press conference yesterday will have heard that he blamed the United States. He blamed those same Republicans, those same pundits on both sides for getting the United States into what he called the Middle East mess - and said they never had the vision or courage that he had to get them out.

KING: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.