Q&A

‘We Just Capitulated’

The Pentagon’s recently departed Middle East policy chief addresses the administration’s handling of Turkey’s Syria invasion and response to Iranian attacks.

U.S. soldiers near the Syrian-Turkish border
U.S. soldiers sit atop a military vehicle, part of a joint convoy with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, patrolling near the town of Muabbadah, Syria, near the Turkish border on Nov. 9. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Michael Mulroy could not have left his position as the U.S. Department of Defense’s Middle East policy chief at a more tumultuous time. Mulroy, a former CIA paramilitary officer, presided over the Trump administration’s Middle East defense policy from October 2017 until Dec. 1, overseeing the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and a spike in tensions with Tehran, the defeat of the Islamic State caliphate, and two announcements—and reversals—of a U.S. drawdown in Syria. 

In an interview with Foreign Policy just weeks after his departure, Mulroy addressed the U.S. response to the increased threat from Iran this summer and Turkey’s October invasion of northeastern Syria. Mulroy, who along with most of the Defense Department opposed exiting the nuclear deal, said the response to Tehran’s shootdown of a U.S. military drone in the Strait of Hormuz—an unacknowledged cyberattack instead of the planned kinetic strike—was insufficient to prevent further attacks.  

Michael Mulroy, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.

Michael Mulroy, former Middle East policy chief for the U.S. Department of Defense. Monica King/U.S. Army

Mulroy’s business partner Eric Oehlerich, who witnessed the effects of the decision firsthand as the commander of a tactical unit with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (otherwise known as Seal Team 6), stationed in the region, also addressed the muted response to the drone shootdown. He said that without a “red line,” Iran’s malign activities will only increase. 

On Syria, Mulroy, who spent countless hours working to establish a security mechanism on the border with Turkey designed to appease both Ankara and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, also spoke out on the U.S. handling of Turkey’s threats to invade northeastern Syria. The United States should have stood its ground and pushed Ankara to explain the need for a military operation, he believes. Instead, “we just capitulated,” he said. 

Mulroy and Oehlerich, who are now ABC News analysts, recently launched a consulting firm, the Lobo Institute, which Mulroy describes as “nonpartisan and apolitical” and which works on ending the use of child soldiers and other conflict issues. The wide-ranging interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: What did you think of the response to Iran’s activities this summer in the Gulf and the attack in Saudi Arabia? Should the United States have sent a stronger message?

Michael Mulroy: If reactions to attacks do not deter, then it wasn’t substantial enough. The attacks on Saudi’s Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais came after the drone shootdown. If my definition is “a reaction to an attack should lead to a deterrence,” then it wasn’t substantial enough, by definition.  

That said, it’s important for Iran not to take a lack of action over the summer for something that’s an indicator of what will happen in the future. If they should happen to directly attack U.S. forces or even unintentionally, for instance if they give a missile or a [unmanned aircraft system] to their proxy and their proxy aims it at a civilian area and kills Americans, I would suspect that they wouldn’t see the same restraint. 

FP: The administration has been criticized for its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. What is the goal of the campaign, and is it succeeding?

MM: There was opposition from the DoD in exiting the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal] not because it was considered a great agreement—I don’t quite frankly think you are going to get a great agreement with Iran—but because it was an agreement that limited their ambitions to get a nuclear weapon. It didn’t cover malign activity, that was the big criticism. In my opinion, we should have kept the agreement on nuclear activity and just came up with another agreement on malign activity. But decisions were made, and those were our marching orders, so that is what it is. 

The economic pressure campaign led by the State Department is working to cause economic pressure. This is from open-source information: You’ve got price of gas spiking, and you’ve got lowest growth since the height of the Iraq War. But the goal wasn’t just to cause economic pressure, the pressure was supposed to cause them to reduce their bad actions in the Middle East and to come up with another JCPOA that included malign activates.

I think empirically you can say their malign activities have increased and they’ve even broken some of the limits that were previously imposed on their nuclear enrichment.

FP: Is that a long way of saying the campaign is not working?  

MM: I’m saying they are causing pressure; it hasn’t yet led to negotiations to get to another agreement. That’s just stating a fact. That’s where the DoD wanted to see it go. I think it could still happen. I would hope that we do more to try to initiate that, and maybe we are. I hope we are approaching them on the diplomatic front and coming up with a way to get them to the table to avoid a regional conflict. We keep getting to the verge of a regional conflict, and it is obvious that Iran has decided they cannot compete with the U.S. in an unconventional front and they’ve elected to go to an unconventional approach in their tactics.  

FP: Do you think Iran will attack again? What will they target this time? 

MM: Looking at past as a prediction of the future, when they feel a lot of pressure economically at home they’ve lashed out as an attempt to get their civilian population to rally around the flag. Because they are under such intense pressure now, I could see them attacking again. If past is precedent, then I think they will continue to focus on anything economic that they can do to cause pain to their regional allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but then also the international oil market.

FP: What was your reaction to Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Turkey-Syria border? 

MM: It was almost universal in the DoD that we were against the Turkish incursion. We thought we should have been more forceful in the idea that we would oppose it, and that we would not have withdrawn. I understand there is only a certain number of U.S. soldiers up there, but we are the United States, and tied to every deployment of a soldier is the U.S. Air Force.

That was not the way to treat a partner. We should’ve had long discussions; we should’ve done absolutely everything we could to support them and their continuation of our common goal in fighting ISIS. My concern now is that our partners have to believe that we are in it thick and thin. It’s not good to have it as a transactional relationship, like a business deal that ends just based on the advantage of one partner at that particular time. That’s not how to most effectively be a partner in these common fights. It will set a difficult stage for future partnerships. 

FP: Could the invasion have been avoided? Do you think Turkey would have invaded if the United States had stood its ground?

MM: I don’t know if anybody can answer that, but I think the criticism that we’ve gotten as government and that I tend to agree with is that we could have found out how much we could have pushed back. The opinion was we just capitulated. We just withdrew—we should have said, “We are not withdrawing, we will defend our position, and you explain to me what the immediate threat of the SDF is,” because objectively they weren’t conducting attacks in Turkey.

The entire interagency led by Ambassador [James] Jeffrey but also the State department and DoD had been working intensely to avoid this entire situation, and I think we had come to an agreement. We had convinced the SDF to allow joint air and ground patrols with the Turks, we had convinced them to dismantle defensive positions. 

But looking back at it, one could say we helped facilitate the military incursion, because essentially, we helped the Turks do reconnaissance, and since the SDF were with us they believed they weren’t going to get attacked and disabled several of their defensive positions. I don’t know if that was the Turks’ intent the whole time, I can’t say that, but certainly one could question that and say that it was not done in good faith. The negotiations were done as a manner to allow them to do military preparation for an incursion.

FP: You worked hard to put together a mechanism that you hoped would prevent the Turks from invading northeastern Syria. What went wrong?

MM: We did everything we could with the Turks to develop the security mechanism that we believe would’ve addressed their concerns regarding the YPG [People’s Protection Units]. It also would’ve addressed the concerns of our key partner the SDF, it would’ve allowed an unobstructed continuation to the defeat ISIS fight, and it would have averted a further humanitarian crisis that exists in Syria today.

This was DoD’s stance, it was mine, and it is mine now as well, but we were pretty clear we opposed the Turkish incursion and thought that what we were doing should’ve addressed those concerns. I would acknowledge that the YPG part of the SDF does have connections to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], but not only were they not a threat to Turkey, us being with them essentially ensured that they were not a threat to Turkey. There was no evidence of them doing attacks in Turkey.  

The situation with the security mechanism may not have been perfect for anybody, but it was I think as good as we could’ve gotten.

FP: Do you think the U.S. should do more to hold Turkey accountable for the invasion and war crimes committed by their proxies in Syria? 

MM: I think the international community, which includes of course the U.S., should investigate a lot of these reported incidents, whether they are directly involved or whether it’s their supporting opposition. They should be held accountable as well as everyone in Syria that is committing crimes.

It shouldn’t just be the U.S.; it should be the U.N.—that is actually the body that is the best to do this. Some of these [Turkish-backed forces], they are bragging about what they are doing. This isn’t “I heard this”—they are tweeting what they are doing, and they are openly stating that they are aligned with al Qaeda affiliates. So again, you can’t rush to judgement, but there needs to be an investigation into what’s going on there.

FP: Are you concerned about the refugee crisis in Syria and the potential for forced demographic change?

MM: The relocation of refugees I think has been widely reported, and you are well aware of it, that hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced in northern Syria. Because it’s predominantly a Kurdish area, I think one could safely say that there’s been a lot of Kurdish families pushed out. That’s a huge problem and a problem that only exacerbates the situation on the ground now, which is one of the worst humanitarian crises in our lifetimes.

FP: The Pentagon recently pushed back on a Wall Street Journal report that they are considering a plan to send 14,000 more forces to Saudi Arabia. Will the Pentagon send additional forces to the Saudi peninsula?

MM: I don’t know if that number is true. But I will point out that when people hear 14,000 troops, they are thinking it’s like a Marine regiment that’s going there, when in fact it’s the people who run the Patriot battery, people who run chow hall, people who are on the aircraft carrier. It doesn’t necessarily equate to 14,000 infantry troops.  

FP: Do you regret the administration’s handling of the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi? 

MM: The intelligence community has been clear on involvement. The actions were atrocious. Saudi Arabia, however, is a key partner. I don’t think that means we absolve them of anything, but they are a key partner, and I think we should be able to both state our condemnation for actions like that and to a certain extent hold them accountable but then also acknowledge that they are a key partner and a relationship that transcends any particular individual on either side. 

FP: Should we have done more to hold them accountable?

MM: What did we do to hold them accountable? Yes, we should do more to hold them accountable, but again they are a key partner. Iran is a threat to the region. Saudi is a big component of our efforts on that, and we have to balance: We should hold them accountable, but we should also maintain the relationship and improve it.  

FP: You left Dec. 1. What is left undone?  

MM: We’ve got to get the Iranians back to the table. “No war in the Middle East,” that was the No. 1 thing that we were told by Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis down on—no war with Iran. We’d win, we don’t have any doubt about that, but it would be extreme costs in lives and resources, it would destabilize the Middle East.  

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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