What rural Ohio makes of Turkey-Syria crisis

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

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image source, Getty Images

Miles away from Washington, what does small-town America think of the Turkey-Syria crisis engulfing President Donald Trump?

It's been nearly a week since a surprise White House press release announced a US withdrawal from northern Syria, setting the stage for a Turkish invasion and more than 200 civilian deaths along the war-torn nation's Kurdish-controlled border region.

The president's actions set off a cross-party torrent of condemnation in Washington, as Democrats and Republicans spoke out against what they saw as an abandonment of Kurdish forces that had allied with the US to fight Islamic State militants.

Just over 300 miles away, however, in the small town of Circleville, Ohio, the conflagration - political and military - seemed a distant, hazy thought.

"I haven't followed it that much really," says Fran Bush, a Circleville resident. "Our pastor is always saying to pray for the president, and I'm trying to listen and see what's going on, but I get so sleepy at times I can't concentrate."

image caption, Fran Bush says she has not followed much of the recent news

Circleville is home to the Pumpkin Show, an annual four-day festival celebrating all things pumpkin that is currently in its 116th year.

It's just on the other side of Columbus from the college campus that on Tuesday night hosted the fourth Democratic presidential debate, where most of the 12 participating candidates offered their own condemnations of the Trump-ordered withdrawal.

Former US Vice-President Joe Biden called the president's decision "shameful". South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg - a military veteran - said it was a betrayal of American allies and values.

"When I was deployed, I knew one of the things keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country known to keep its word," he said. "You take that away, you are taking away what makes America America."

Listen to many US politicians - both before and after the Thursday announcement of a temporary "pause" in Turkish military operations in Syria - and it seems like a serious and growing crisis is enveloping the Trump presidency.

If it is, however, it's an issue that doesn't seem to be resonating with much of the American public.

According to a recent Ipsos poll, 36% of Americans didn't know what to think about the Syrian situation. An earlier YouGov poll had the number at 41%.

Conversations with attendees at the Circleville Pumpkin Show the day after the Democratic debate bore these numbers out.

image caption, Local pumpkin growers at the Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio

College student Sierra Arrar said she doesn't follow the news. Lauren Esteph, who works for a local "good news" newsletter called the Dimple Times, said she tries to stay unplugged from negative things.

Retired schoolteacher Spiro Spantithos said he was following the story and that he thinks the US should have kept troops in the area to ensure stability.

"I don't believe in deploying troops that are helter-skelter," he said, "but when it comes to having security so that we're not worrying about somebody doing something crazy, we have to have something like that."

Spantithos was the exception, however. Most at the Pumpkin Show were like Danny Evans, a construction labourer, who said he was too busy with work.

"I leave at 4:30 in the morning, and I get home at 6:30 or 7:00 at night. I eat dinner with my kids, and I go to bed, and get up and go again."

image caption, Growers at a pumpkin festival in Ohio weigh in on the Turkey-Syria crisis

He says he learns a bit about current events from Facebook, but he doesn't watch or read the news regularly. What he says he does know, however, is that the US has been too weak for too long.

"We need somebody like Trump who is going to stand up for our country and tell them that we're the United States and they can't [expletive] with us," he says.

Evans was walking with his two young daughters on a chilly Wednesday along the main street of Circleville, which was lined with a variety of pumpkin-themed craft vendors and pumpkin-infused food stalls.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Circleville over four days to queue up for carnival rides, listen to musical acts and soak up the spectacle. On Wednesday morning, local pumpkin growers competed for a prize for the largest locally grown pumpkin - with the winner weighing in at 1,421lb.

image caption, The Pumpkin Show bills itself as the largest pumpkin-dedicated festival in the world

The Little Miss Pumpkin Show pageant parade was the afternoon's highlight, as beaming seven-year-old girls in fancy dress sat on the hoods of slow-driving American sports cars, interspersed with local school marching bands, in a seemingly endless procession through streets packed with onlookers.

It was pure, undistilled Americana - like a John Mellencamp video come to life.

Don McIlroy, the Republican mayor of Circleville, patrolled the streets in a dark suit and bright-orange tie, shaking hands and chatting with local residents. He said the people of his patch of rural central Ohio were confused by the Syrian conflict - and needed more information before they could make up their minds.

The president's talk of getting the US out of "endless wars" seemed to strike a chord, however.

"I think a lot of people wished that we would have pulled out of some of the other wars that we were in," he says. "I was in the Vietnam War, and I wished we would have pulled out of that a little sooner than we did."

McIlroy wouldn't draw comparisons between the chaos in the Vietnam War as the US withdrew and the recent developments in Syria, however. He instead noted that, unlike Vietnam, US soldiers were welcomed when they returned home from the Middle East.

Downtown Circleville had ample evidence of that. Mixed in with the pumpkin-themed signs all along downtown were American flags and banners featuring photographs of area residents currently serving in the US military, identified as "American heroes".

image caption, Local mayor Don McIlroy says residents are confused about the Syria conflict

Back in Washington, politicians condemning Mr Trump's Syrian withdrawal said his move was doing a disservice to America and the soldiers who serve it, however.

"What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a blood stain in the annals of American history," Utah Senator Mitt Romney, the Republican 2012 presidential nominee, said in a speech on Thursday.

"That same day, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to rebuke the president for his Syrian withdrawal, including every Democrat and 129 Republicans.

Responding to criticism from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham on Wednesday, President Trump insisted that he had a best feel for the sentiment of the American people.

"The people of South Carolina want to see those troops come home," Mr Trump said. "And I won an election based on that. And that's the way it is, whether it's good or bad. That's the way it is. And if you look at this country, I'd be willing to bet anything - political instinct - that that's what the country wants."

If Circleville, and recent polling, are any indication, the American public isn't quite sure what it wants with regard to the situation in Syria - or whom to blame.

The president may not be exactly right, then, but he's also not wrong.

media caption, Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton says president Trump is 'celebrating undoing a problem he created'

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