Congress Eyes Sanctions after Turkey’s Incursion into Syria

Washington has been abuzz this week after President Donald Trump’s decision to redeploy US troops away from the Turkish border in northern Syria, which essentially paved the way for Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring.” The backlash on Capitol Hill was swift, severe, and bipartisan. Even Trump’s most animated supporters were seething at his decision to leave the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fend for themselves against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s second largest military.

The main questions to be considered shortly after President Trump’s decision appeared to be what kind of rebuke that Congress would issue and how quickly it could do so. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Mike McCaul (R-Texas) immediately introduced a House resolution, and later a House joint resolution, condemning the president’s and Ankara’s moves. The two also released preliminary text for a bill that would formally sanction Turkey. In the Senate, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) teamed up to craft a bill that would levy a host of sanctions on Ankara—sanctions normally reserved for states Washington deems hostile or enemies.

Senator Graham and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) have reportedly been negotiating a sanctions package as well. Their coordination indicates that the majorities of both chambers wanted to take forceful—and more importantly, speedy—action to force Turkey to back down from its military operation.

The president was experiencing unified and unshaken opposition to his decision and the desire on Capitol Hill to do something about it was palpable. Therefore, the White House crafted a plan to placate the Republican Party’s most critical members, hoping to give itself some room to maneuver, persuade Turkey to cease its operation, and avoid sanctioning Ankara too severely. To do this, Trump invited Senator Graham to the White House to discuss the situation. This seemed to achieve what was intended. After the conversation with Turkish officials, Graham struck a much less strident tone and he praised President Trump for his decision to unilaterally impose sanctions on Turkey. Furthermore, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s supposed assurances and the White House’s apparent commitments to work with congressional Republicans pacified Graham and others enough to chill the revolt.

In his statement, Graham urged his colleagues on Capitol Hill to “continue to speak out against Turkey’s incursion into Syria and support President Trump’s efforts to impose crippling sanctions against Turkey.” It can be inferred, then, that Graham was backing down from his desire to pass mandatory sanctions through Congress and would instead support a non-statutory resolution or something less forceful.

To further address the situation unfolding in northern Syria, the president dispatched Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other administration officials to Turkey to request an immediate ceasefire. In addition, shortly after Turkey undertook its incursion into Syria, the White House announced it had released funds previously earmarked for Syria stabilization support in an effort to signal to lawmakers that the administration understood the severity of the situation.

Now, however, the question remains as to whether the administration is committed enough to force the unyielding Erdoğan to agree to a ceasefire and withdrawal from northern Syria. The Turkish president reportedly swore off even meeting with the American envoy (though later reports stated he would) and refused to agree to a ceasefire with the Kurdish-led SDF, which Ankara views as a  mortal threat because of its ties to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization. It is clear that the initial sanctions had not had the intended effect of deterring Turkey’s incursion—the military immediately moved on the Kurdish-held city of Kobani, flying in the face of a promise Erdoğan had given Trump and Graham. When asked about the situation that was unfolding, Trump was apathetic, even parroting Turkish talking points about Kurds being terrorists.

Are Republicans in Capitol Hill going to revert back to their original positions and work to pass strong, bipartisan, and bicameral sanctions on Turkey and send a blunt message to the White House? On October 16, the House passed a joint resolution that has a counterpart in the Senate (see the House version here and the Senate version here). The symbolism is there, as members on both sides of the Capitol will be on the record. But, in practice, it does little to affect the situation. It is clear, too, that initial sanctions did not work and the president of the United States seems uninterested in doing more to protect the SDF, the group that worked with US forces to uproot the Islamic State.

As of this publication, Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), a member of the GOP House leadership, and over 90 of her House colleagues introduced a bill levying sanctions on Turkey in order to force it to end its operation in Syria. It appears that Congress will muster the support to penalize Ankara. The only questions now revolve around what form these penalties will take and whether each chamber can garner veto-proof majorities that could overcome any potential White House opposition.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Diplomatic Solution to the Conflict in Libya. On October 11, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) introduced H.R. 4644 to clarify that it is US policy that the warring sides in Libya find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

2) Hearings and Briefings

An Examination of US-Iran Policy. On October 16, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing with Brian Hook, Special Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to further assess Washington’s strategy toward Tehran. Hook, who serves as the public face of the administration’s Iran strategy, reiterated a number of his most used talking points, including that the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign is the strongest such effort ever and that it will be successful in forcing the Iranians to capitulate and return to the negotiating table. However, many of his points were misleading and bordering on untrue. For example, Hook told the committee that Tehran has a “great Iran” strategy through which it hopes to make vassal states out of its neighbors. This illustrates the administration’s—and much of the American foreign policy establishment’s—fundamental mistrust of Iran’s regional security strategy. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) made it a point to explain this dynamic, arguing that Iran acts as it does largely from a defensive posture. Contentious issues for the United States, like Iran’s ballistic missile program, then, would never be negotiated because to Tehran, this program serves as deterrence against the United States and US regional allies.

Earlier in the week, Hook gave a press briefing to provide information on the administration’s decision to deploy 3,000 US troops to Saudi Arabia in a move intended to bolster security against Iranian attacks, such as the one on the kingdom’s oil facility in Abqaiq. Though Iran likely sees this as a threatening maneuver, Hook insisted that it in no way signals Washington’s desire for conflict with Tehran.

Syria Study Group: Recommendations for US Policy. The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism also held a hearing on October 16, focusing on the Syria Study Group’s recommendations for US policy regarding the conflict in Syria. The study group co-chairs presented the same recommendations and strategies that they provided during previous hearings, but this one involved much more discussion about the recent developments in Syria vis-à-vis the Kurds and Turkey.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Dingell Appeals to Pompeo, Green to Aid with Lebanon’s Fires. On October 16, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Agency for International Development Administrator Mike Green urging the United States to assist Lebanon in containing wildfires raging in many areas of the country.

4) Nominations

Dorothy Shea Nominated to Serve in Beirut. President Trump has chosen Dorothy Shea, the current Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Egypt, to serve as the next ambassador to Lebanon. No confirmation hearing has yet been finalized.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Vice President Pence Meets with Egyptian Prime Minister. On October 15, Vice President Mike Pence welcomed Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly to the White House. The pair spoke about bilateral relations, regional security, and human rights in Egypt.

2) Department of State

State Department Diplomatic Outreach. Over the last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met or spoken with Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khaled bin Salman and Iraqi President Barham Salih. The secretary talked to the two leaders about bilateral relations and regional developments of mutual concern.

In addition, several State Department officials were holding high level meetings this week. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper traveled to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar; and Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker left on October 17 for Qatar.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Discusses Iraq. This week, Joey Hood represented the State Department at a conference that focused on exploring “the key challenges and opportunities confronting current and future generations in Iraq.” Hood, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, spoke about the origins of the recent protests in Iraq, the need for the Iraqi government to allow peaceful demonstrations, and the role the United States has in supporting Iraq.

Ambassador David Friedman Gives Interview on Peace Plan. On October 16, Israeli news outlet Arutz Sheva 7 published an interview with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. The most notable part of Friedman’s interview came in regard to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Citing the forced evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip, Friedman said it is inconceivable that the Israeli government would evacuate the 640,000 settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The international community and the United States have long held that the settlements are detrimental to a two-state solution, but Friedman—himself an active supporter of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory—seems to signal that the administration is content with Israel holding on to these blocs under its “peace plan.”