WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s special envoy for the Syrian conflict said the administration made clear “at every level” that it opposed Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria and that the resulting offensive has undermined the fight against Islamic State.
“Turkey launched this operation despite our objections, undermining the D-ISIS campaign, risking endangering and displacing civilians, destroying critical civilian infrastructure, and threatening the security of the area,” Ambassador James Jeffrey told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, using an acronym for the coalition to defeat the Islamic State. “Turkey’s military actions have precipitated a humanitarian crisis and set conditions for possible war crimes.”
Despite the setback, Jeffrey said the U.S. will work with Turkey and “local partners” to continue the fight against Islamic State. Lawmakers of both parties have warned that Trump’s abrupt decision to begin withdrawing about 1,000 U.S. troops gave Turkey a green light to invade, which will prove disastrous for regional stability and deadly for U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters that fought against Islamic State.
“Our president told President Erdogan that we were pulling out our troops, we did so and they attacked within a matter of hours,” Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, told Jeffrey in the hearing. “You say those are unrelated but it would seem to me that there was a relationship.”
Jeffrey spoke as Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he reached a “historic” deal with Russia to remove Syrian Kurdish militants from a strip of border territory extending along the length of northeast Syria. That accord follows the expiration of a 120-hour cease-fire in northern Syria negotiated by Vice President Mike Pence, intended to allow U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters to retreat from the border.
On Tuesday, Pence released a statement saying he received a letter from the head of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces claiming their troops have withdrawn from “the relevant area of operations.” Pence says that means the terms of the cease-fire he negotiated with Erdogan were met.
Speaking alongside Putin after a six-hour meeting in Sochi, Erdogan said Russian forces would help evict Kurdish fighters from areas outside a 120-km long corridor where Turkish forces are operating.
As the original cease-fire deal was about to expire on Tuesday, an administration official told reporters it had been one of the most perfect cease-fires in memory and expressed optimism it will become permanent.
Trump’s impulsive foreign policy has strained relations with his own party as he faces an unrelated impeachment inquiry in the Democratic-led House of Representatives. While Republicans have been careful to separate their Syria criticism from any position on impeachment, Trump’s withdrawal shook members of his own party and left few willing to publicly defend him.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will be key to keeping Trump in office should the House impeach him, wrote an op-ed published by the Washington Post on Friday calling the withdrawal “a grave strategic mistake,” without naming Trump. Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, McConnell said he backs a strong resolution to condemn Turkey’s military action in Syria, but he cautioned against sanctions “as a tool of first, last and only resort” in foreign policy.
Various proposals to impose harsh economic sanctions on Turkey have been introduced in Congress, including a bill from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen that would target Turkish sovereign debt, the energy sector and key political leaders, as well as halting arms sales to the country — a NATO ally.
Graham told reporters Tuesday that he spoke with Trump, Pence and other administration officials about Kurdish movements out of the border area Turkey wants to control, as well as Turkey’s commitment to an international buffer zone. Graham expressed confidence that the temporary cease-fire will become permanent Tuesday, and if that continues to hold he said he’ll “re-evaluate” his sanctions proposal.
On the House side, lawmakers may vote on a bipartisan sanctions bill from the Foreign Affairs Committee by the end of the month. Yet there were also signs that some House Republicans, including the panel’s ranking member, Michael McCaul, wanted to let events on the ground develop further before moving ahead on sanctions.
“My recommendation was, ‘look, give the cease-fire an opportunity to work,’ ” McCaul said Monday. “We’ll know as this week plays out whether it’s working or not. If it doesn’t, I think absolutely we need to go forward with the sanctions.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said sanctioning Turkey isn’t the solution to fix a crisis that was effectively allowed by the U.S. president.
“Our problem is with Trump, so I’m not exactly sure about the wisdom of sanctioning Turkey for doing something that Trump is helping them to do,” Murphy said Monday. “I worry that we’ve rushed into drafting legislation that ultimately is not going to accrue to the benefit of American national security and takes all of the pressure off of Trump.”
Speaking on Capitol Hill Monday, Ilham Ahmed, president of the Syrian Democratic Council, said Trump’s “surprise” announcement hurt the coalition that the U.S. relied on to control territory wrested from Islamic State. She said Kurdish forces, part of an ethnic minority in northern Syria, are now subject to “ethnic cleansing.”
Trump said Monday that some of the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in northern Syria could remain to help secure oil fields, although it wasn’t immediately clear what he meant.
The decision to end most of the U.S. military presence in the area will also benefit Russia. Syrian forces loyal to Assad, backed by Russia, moved into Kurdish areas after the U.S. retreat.
Russia has cultivated closer ties with Turkey, selling the NATO ally a missile-defense system that should have triggered U.S. sanctions.
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, said Monday that all U.S. senators are concerned about the re-emergence of Islamic State.
“My primary concern is the disposition of the ISIS captives,” Johnson said. “I want to make sure that they don’t escape and that ISIS is not able to be reconstituted.”
That is a very real possibility, according to Jennifer Cafarella, research director at the Institute for the Study of War.
“There are no good options here, only bad and worse,” Cafarella said. “It is a given that ISIS will resurge in Syria and possibly expand their campaign in Iraq, exploiting the new freedom of movement in eastern Syria.”
The Foreign Relations Committee Hearing is one of at least three congressional hearings on Syria this week. Jeffrey will also testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. The National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform will also hold a hearing Wednesday on the administration’s Syria policy.