President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops from Syria last week – a move that cleared a path for Turkey to attack US-allied Kurdish forces there – got a mixed response Tuesday from Senate Republicans.
Many criticized the decision because they believe it opened the door to the resurgence of ISIS, but others defended it as the best way avoid US servicemembers from being caught in the crossfire between Turkish and Kurdish troops.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led the chorus against the move, directly condemning Turkey for attacking the Kurds.
“I know I speak for many of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle in expressing my grave concern at the events that have unfolded in Syria in recent days,” he said in a floor speech. “Turkey’s escalation of hostilities with the Syrian Kurdish partners who have helped the United States fight terrorism is completely unacceptable. This violence needs to end.”
But McConnell also had a message that appeared aimed at Trump, who often advocates an isolationist approach to problems around the world, although he didn’t mention the President by name.
“The United States has taken the fight to Syria and Afghanistan because that is where our enemies are,” McConnell said. “Fighting terrorists, exercising leadership in troubled regions, and advancing US interests around the world does not make us an evil empire or the world’s policeman. It makes us a prudent and responsible world power that stands up for our own security and the freedom of others.”
McConnell and other bipartisan leaders are set to meet with Trump on Wednesday at the White House to discuss Syria ahead of a diplomatic mission by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who will travel to Turkey on Thursday.
Congressional leaders are also weighing competing legislative measures, some that would put sanctions on the Turks, others that would decry Trump for triggering the events and urging him to reverse course. It’s unclear which measure will be considered when or even at all.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said he was doubtful sanctions would work and said Congress should hold off taking legislative steps before seeing if the diplomatic route can succeed.
“I am skeptical sanctions will change (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s mind,” Cornyn said. “He has a blood feud with the Kurds. He considers them a terrorist organization.”
He also said he was sympathetic to Trump who had to choose between leaving troops in harm’s way or getting them out before an inevitable conflict between the Kurds and the Turks.
“I think all of this, in the end, was inevitable, where in a tragic situation 500,000 Syrians have died, millions have been displaced as refugees,” Cornyn said. “This was not a sustainable situation putting 1,000 American troops in harm’s way between the Turkish military and the Kurds. It’s tragic.”
Cornyn did question whether the Trump administration has actually developed a strategy for the Syrian conflict.
“Obama didn’t have a strategy and, frankly, I haven’t seen a change in that since the Trump folks came into office,” he said.
For instance, Cornyn said that it’s “not good” members of ISIS might have been able to escape.
“There should have been some thought about keeping those people in detention. But the Kurds were not a permanent solution to that,” Cornyn said.
Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, called Trump’s decision a “smart move.”
“Why should we be in the crossfire,” he asked. “And what would have happened had we remained there and been in the crossfire and I’d like to know what the media and all the folks who are hitting Trump currently would say. I’m sure that would be considered a bigger fiasco then what’s happened here.”
He said he was less concerned that ISIS could regain its strength and threaten the US again.
“That’s an assumption that that is all going to mushroom back,” Braun said.
Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn said she disagrees with Trump’s decision because it exposed the Kurds.
“It’s a policy I disagree with,” said Blackburn, who is often supportive of Trump’s policies.
The Tennessee freshman said the issue hits home for her because the nation’s largest population of Kurds is in Nashville. Asked if sanctions are a sufficient response to the President’s decision, Blackburn replied, “we’ll see what the week holds.
It was not just GOP senators who criticized the President’s decision; members of the House also spoke up Tuesday.
“It’s a huge mistake,” Rep. Francis Rooney told CNN. “The President should not have done what he did. He’s opened up a huge can of worms. Now, we’ve opened up the day for Turkey, Russia and even Iran to take control over Syria. I’m really sad that this happened.”
The Florida Republican said that he’s a co-sponsor of bills to “beat up on” Turkey, but thought they are “kind of a day late and a dollar short.”
“It never should’ve happened,” Rooney said. “We never should’ve given Turkey the opening.”
CNN’s Alex Rogers contributed to this report.