President Donald Trump on Monday defended his decision to pull US troops from northern Syria ahead of an impending Turkish invasion despite criticism from top Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The abrupt move, announced in a Sunday night statement from the White House press secretary following a call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has prompted a rare show of bipartisan opposition to the Republican President. It has also left national security officials to try to explain another foreign policy about-face – one that threatens the US-backed Kurdish forces in the region.
On Monday, Trump said he was “not siding with anybody” – Kurdish forces or the Turkish government – in his decision and reiterated an earlier warning to Turkey about potential economic devastation.
“I told Turkey if they do anything outside of what we think is humane … they could suffer the wrath of an extremely decimated economy,” the President said.
Trump also sought to downplay the seeming suddenness of his decision, saying he “consulted with everybody.” A senior administration official said that he had discussed the issues “with his senior advisers in the defense, diplomatic and folks, staff here at the White House.” Two defense officials told CNN that neither Defense Secretary Mark Esper or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley were blindsided by the President’s decision over the weekend to pull the troops back. Both officials said there were multiple phone calls with top national security officials over the weekend discussing the matter. However, neither official knew specifically how far ahead of the decision Esper and Milley were notified.
Trump faced a barrage of criticism from within his own party, including McConnell, Sen. Lindsey Graham and former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley about the decision.
Trump said on Monday afternoon, “I have great respect for all the people that you named. They have their opinion and a lot of people do and I could also name many more than you just named of people that are totally supportive.”
McConnell on Monday urged Trump to reverse his move, saying “a precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime.”
“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,” the Kentucky Senator said. “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.
“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.
Other Republican allies of the President, including Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, objected to Trump’s decision.
“Pulling out of northern Syria ignores that painful lesson, represents an abandonment of our Kurdish allies despite their vital contributions to the fight against ISIS, emboldens Iran, and serves as an undeserved gift to the Erdogan regime, which has only continued its steady march toward Moscow,” said Cheney.
The comments from Republicans are particularly noteworthy given the party’s reluctance to oppose the President on other issues. When contacted by CNN in recent days, less than a handful of Republican lawmaker’s offices expressed concerns over Trump’s public call for foreign governments to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
A few Republicans have praised the move – including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“I stand with @realDonaldTrump today as he once again fulfills his promises to stop our endless wars and have a true America First foreign policy,” Paul tweeted.
Numerous Democrats also expressed their misgivings about Trump’s decision on Syria. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called the move “a deeply disturbing development that betrays our Kurdish allies who have been instrumental partners in our mission to eradicate ISIS.”
America ‘would not support this operation in any way, shape or form’
As lawmakers on both sides of the aisle denounced the move to pull back troops from the Turkish-northern Syrian border, US officials sought to emphasize that the US does not support a potential Turkish incursion into Syria.
“The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey - as did the President - that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria. The U.S. Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation,” Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement Monday.