In just two weeks, President Trump’s announcement of an abrupt U.S. withdrawal has remade northeastern Syria. The Kurdish group long backed by the United States against ISIS has accused Washington of betrayal and allied itself with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. NATO ally Turkey, with help from Syrian Arab militias believed to contain former ISIS fighters, has pushed 20 miles into Syria to attack the Kurds. And Russia has swept in to become the nation’s de facto power broker.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are planning a variety of measures to salvage the chaotic situation — but many fear that the damage is already done, even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence announced a so-called “ceasefire” agreement giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a 20-mile buffer zone that he has sought on the Turkey-Syria border.
“To an extent, the egg may be scrambled, but we have an obligation to do whatever we can,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., after a closed-door briefing with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday morning. “The situation is a disaster in terms of military and foreign policy.”
Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee said they fear that the violence will precede the resurgence of ISIS, which has survived in sleeper cells interspersed with the local population across Syria.
Most Republicans were more circumspect, but expressed deep concerns about the U.S. military’s ability to fight ISIS without ground troops and allies in Syria.It “remains to be seen” whether that can be done effectively, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said after the briefing.
The U.S.-Turkey deal — announced just hours after the Senate received its briefing — amplified the uncertainty about the situation on the ground in Syria. Pence said that the United States would “facilitate” the withdrawal of Kurdish YPG fighters from the so-called buffer zone, but it remains unclear whether the YPG, stung by what they see as a U.S. betrayal, will agree to go. And the status of the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria, underway until Thursday, is now unknown.
Although the Trump administration has hailed the deal as a victory, it also remains unclear whether Congress will consider it an acceptable remedy to the situation. “From what I understand it’s not a ceasefire,” Sen Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters on Capitol Hill. “You have one- hundred- and- X number of hours to get out of here before we kill you.”
Up until Thursday, Pentagon officials said that the 1,000 U.S. troops who were rushing out of Syria would be redeployed elsewhere in the Middle East to continue the fight. But without an on-the-ground presence, it becomes far more difficult to identify targets to strike from the air. And that’s assuming that the United States maintains its access to Syrian airspace, which lawmakers exiting the briefing said is hardly a given.
There are other complications, said Sen. Jack Reed, R.I., the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “I assume our human intelligence network has been pretty well decimated since we’ve given up the best source of information, our relationship with the Kurds,” he said. And, he added, “I don’t know what the Iraqis will do in terms of letting us operate from that region.”
“We’re in the process now of on the run trying to come up with another strategy to deter and continue to defeat ISIS.”
House and Senate lawmakers have put forth a variety of measures to respond to the withdrawal and Turkey’s actions — all of which are now up in the air with the announcement of the “ceasefire.” The House on Wednesday approved, 354-60, a nonbinding resolution condemning the withdrawal as abandoning the Kurds. Over in the Senate, a bipartisan group of senators that included Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Thursday introduced a package of sanctions targeting Erdogan and his cabinet and banning military sales to Turkey, among other things.
“Mr. President, if you don’t understand that ISIS is coming back, you’re missing a lot of good advice. If you don’t understand that these bastards would kill us all if they could, you’re missing what they’re saying,” Graham said at a press conference announcing the legislation on Thursday. “And how do you fix this? You lead. You tell Erdogan you are speaking for a nation now. I have the backing of the United States Congress. We will not tolerate it.”
Perhaps most notably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor that his “first preference” would be “for something stronger than the House resolution,” which he said was “curiously silent on the issue of whether to actually to sustain a U.S. military presence in Syria.”
Congress is in an unusual position in attempting to push the executive branch into continuing a military presence, rather than seeking to curtail one, and some libertarian Republicans have cheered the president’s withdrawal.
The Graham sanctions legislation, introduced with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., also does not enjoy universal Republican support. Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters Thursday that he opposed additional sanctions because “I don’t think that’s the right action for now.” Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said that while sanctions “are a tool that can be used,” she has not yet seen the bill and declined to support it.
Trump himself has made it clear that the conflict “has nothing to do with us.”
“It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it,” he said Wednesday.
The Trump administration has imposed relatively toothless sanctions on three Turkish officials and the nation’s defense and energy ministries, which under the terms of the new deal will be removed after the removal of the YPG fighters from the buffer zone. If the ceasefire does not hold or can’t be implemented, a senior defense official on Tuesday said that the administration is expected to craft waivers that would allow arms sales to Turkey to continue and Trump plans to meet with Erdogan at the White House in November.
The White House announced on Oct. 6 that U.S. special operators patrolling a negotiated border zone with Turkey would withdraw ahead of a threatened Turkish advance and within three days, Erdogan had launched the first airstrikes. Last weekend, Trump announced a full withdrawal of the remaining thousand troops from Syria, leaving behind the Kurdish fighters who have been battling ISIS with U.S. direction and backing for four years — while also fending off Assad’s forces.
Turkey has repeatedly threatened to attack the U.S.-allied SDF, which is the militia arm of a Kurdish separatist group that Ankara considers to be terrorists. But it had never followed through on those threats until Wednesday, when it began launching air and artillery strikes into northeastern Syria.
Critics of the president say that by clearing U.S. soldiers from the negotiated border zone, Trump gave Erdogan a de facto “green light” to invade.
“Because of this decision and all the actions and inactions that led up to this decision, we have let our friends down, we have hurt our national security and we have ceded leadership in the region to Russia and Iran,” Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, a former CIA officer who is retiring, said on the floor Wednesday.
“I hope we can change our course, but I fear it may be too late.”