Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
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President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria ahead of a long-planned Turkish military operation is being blasted by lawmakers and security experts in Washington, including Republicans better known for being loyal allies of the president.
The White House announcement late Sunday night, which says Turkey will take on the role of containing the Islamic State in Syria, is being decried by critics as a win for Iran and ISIS and a betrayal of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters on the ground who have long been in Ankara’s sights.
In a rare attack on Trump’s policies, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the move “impulsive” and “a disaster in the making.”
“I hope I’m making myself clear how shortsighted and irresponsible this decision is in my view,” Graham, a close confidant of Trump’s, told Fox News on Monday morning. “This is a big win for Iran and Assad. A big win for ISIS.”
He also tweeted his concerns, calling the potential policy decision “a disaster in the making.”
The criticism focuses on what many are calling an abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies on the ground in Syria, an organization of militias who spearheaded the fight against ISIS and suffered heavy casualties supporting the U.S. campaign there.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., broke with Trump over the foreign policy shift.
“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup,” McConnell said in a statement Monday afternoon.
“I urge the President to exercise American leadership to keep together our multinational coalition to defeat ISIS and prevent significant conflict between our NATO ally Turkey and our local Syrian counterterrorism partners. Major new conflict between Turkey and our partners in Syria would seriously risk damaging Turkey’s ties to the United States and causing greater isolation for Turkey on the world stage,” McConnell said.
“As we learned the hard way during the Obama Administration, American interests are best served by American leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal,” he added.
Turkey views the fighters, particularly the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as terrorists and a security threat on its southern border and has long expressed its desire to launch an offensive against them. The Turks stress the YPG’s ties to a separatist Kurdish group in Turkey, the PKK, which has carried out a decadeslong violent insurgency against the Turkish state.
Turkey already has troops amassed along the Turkish-Syrian border and in January 2018 attacked Afrin, a Kurdish stronghold in northern Syria, in an offensive that drove hundreds of thousands of Kurds to refugee camps.
‘America is an unreliable ally’
Graham also wrote a lengthy thread on Twitter, writing, “By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible – America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways.”
He added that the decision “makes it difficult for the U.S. to recruit allies against radical Islam.”
“I feel very bad for the Americans and allies who have sacrificed to destroy the ISIS Caliphate because this decision virtually reassures the reemergence of ISIS. So sad. So dangerous.”
Graham pledged to introduce a Senate resolution opposing and asking for a reversal of this decision if the plan moves forward.
The South Carolina senator wasn’t the only Republican condemning Trump’s decision Monday. Graham’s message was echoed by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who similarly stressed the risks of abandoning local U.S. allies and ceding influence to Iran, who has long had forces in Syria supporting its dictator Bashar Assad.
“The President’s decision to abandon our Kurd allies in the face of an assault by Turkey is a betrayal. It says that America is an unreliable ally and facilitates ISIS resurgence,” Romney said in a statement Monday morning. Kurdish officials from Syrian Democratic Forces have warned that an incoming offensive from Turkey would force the fighters to defend themselves, taking their focus away from ISIS.
Rubio called the Trump administration’s decision “a grave mistake that will have implications far beyond Syria,” adding, “It would confirm Iran’s view of this administration & embolden then to escalate hostile attacks which in turn could trigger much broader & more dangerous regional war.”
A ‘win for ISIS’?
Trump, defending his decision, stressed that it’s now time for other countries to fill the U.S. role, and welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s offer to take on the fight against ISIS — an offer that many critics see as a cover for having free rein to kill YPG members in Syria.
Later in the day, Trump in an eye-catching tweet tried to reassure his critics that he would manage the situation personally if Turkey steps out of line: “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.”
Allies in the global anti-ISIS coalition and in Congress have previously expressed concern that the campaign against the extremist group was not finished.
Experts also warn that if Turkey attacks the Kurds, they will be forced to abandon the anti-ISIS fight in order to defend themselves.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, wrote on Twitter: “Withdrawing US forces from Northern Syria is a catastrophic mistake that puts our gains against ISIS at risk and threatens US security.”
Nikki Haley, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. under Trump, tweeted on Monday: “We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake.” #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend
Even former governor of Arkansas Republican Mike Huckabee, a staunch conservative who frequently defends the president on Fox News, wrote on Twitter: “I generally support @POTUS on foreign policy & don’t want our troops fighting other nations’ wars, but a HUGE mistake to abandon Kurds. They’ve never asked us to do THEIR fighting-just give them tools to defend themselves. They have been faithful allies. We CANNOT abandon them.”
The Turks, for their part, say they are committed to the fight against ISIS, something the former U.S. envoy to the global anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, has questioned.
The spokesman for Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, tweeted Monday that Turkey will continue to fight against ISIS and will not allow it to return “in any shape and form.”
And a statement from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu read: “[We are] determined to ensure survivability and security of Turkey by clearing the region from terrorists. We will contribute to bringing safety, peace and stability to Syria.”
In late December, in the wake of Trump’s initial announcement of U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, the Kurds reportedly began digging ditches and trenches in anticipation of the offensive. That prompted Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to say, “they will be buried in their ditches when the time comes.”
Correction: Rep. Liz Cheney is from Wyoming. An earlier version misidentified her state.