Trump’s Decision on Northeastern Syria Still Reverberates

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria and allow a Turkish military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continues to draw criticism in Washington. Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike saw the decision as an abandonment of Syria’s Kurds who have been instrumental in defeating the so-called Islamic State and destroying its self-described caliphate in the region. The House of Representatives approved, by a margin of 354 to 60, a nonbinding bipartisan resolution opposing the president’s move. Two-thirds of Republicans in the chamber voted for the measure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) penned an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he criticized the withdrawal decision as a “grave strategic mistake.” Indeed, the move raised deep concerns in the American capital about serious damage to US credibility as a reliable ally and partner.

Feeling the pressure, the Trump Administration dispatched Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to Ankara for negotiations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan. The trio emerged with an agreement on a five-day ceasefire between Turkish forces and the SDF during which the latter withdraws from the safe zone Turkey’s forces were to establish along the Turkish-Syrian border. But in strategic terms, the ceasefire agreement was a de facto capitulation to Turkey, which has waited for American approval of its safe zone idea for a while. Turkey wants to establish the safe zone for two declared purposes: to ensure its security by pushing away the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that are allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey deems to be a terrorist organization, and to relocate millions of Syrian refugees.

To help address concerns arising from the withdrawal decision, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Amman, Jordan, and Kabul, Afghanistan, for talks with the countries’ leaders. While Jordan and Afghanistan are only two of the countries that rely on Washington for security and economic assistance, Pelosi’s visit was seen as a message to a wider international audience that the United States still cherishes its strategic relationships and will remain committed to allies and friends around the world. It is obvious that Turkey, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran are the main beneficiaries from the American withdrawal; this has added poignancy to the now-established reality that the United States may have finally surrendered whatever influence it ever had in Syria.

Fueling the anger and criticism has been the abruptness of the president’s decision and the lack of consultation and reasoned analysis of the situation in northeastern Syria. Since his original decision during a telephone conversation with President Erdoğan on October 6, President Trump has made two modifications. The first was to order the withdrawing US troops to move across the border into Iraq and the second was to keep a contingent of soldiers deployed in the area to guard oil fields. Nevertheless, the president’s withdrawal decision has cast doubt on the American role in Syria and raised concerns among allies about American commitment to their protection and well-being. It is worth noting that Iraq objected to the decision to move US troops to its territory; but after talks between Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Iraqi officials, it was decided that they would stay there for four weeks only.

The ceasefire agreement negotiated by Vice President Pence expired on October 22 and Turkish forces resumed military operations. The withdrawal of US troops to Iraq took place, but under no less than humiliating conditions. Kurdish civilians in northeastern Syria pelted US military vehicles with rotten food to express their anger at being abandoned by the United States. Many American soldiers expressed frustration that they were made to withdraw hastily and to abandon a special relationship with Kurdish fighters. In fact, US air assets were sent to destroy abandoned ammunition dumps previously used by departing troops so that they would not fall into the wrong hands.

It is hard to assess the long-term ramifications of the American withdrawal from areas in northeastern Syria. But what is not difficult to measure is the long-term impact on US policy in the Middle East, a region where the United States has boasted of strong relations with both state and non-state actors. American credibility regarding its commitment to the well-being of allies and friends is likely to be the first casualty of the president’s decision. Such a credibility deficit will slowly but surely manifest in the decision by states in the region to look for other allies and partners, such as Russia, thus seeking a hedge against unknown developments or threats in the years to come.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

Jonathan Adler and Halla Keir*

I. Congress

1) Legislation

House Joint Resolution on Syria Withdrawal. As was noted in ACW’s publication last week, the House voted overwhelmingly to adopt H.J. Res. 77 that criticizes the Trump Administration’s decision to redeploy US troops away from Syria’s border with Turkey. Because it is a joint resolution, the Senate can consider and pass the same language, though it would not become law. As such, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) moved to vote on the joint resolution on October 17. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), a supporter of the president’s decision, objected, blocking an immediate vote. Schumer criticized Paul’s objection as “a horrible decision” and spoke again on the Senate floor on October 21, lamenting Trump’s betrayal of Kurdish allies—as well as the enhanced status of Russia in the Middle East—and urging a vote on the House resolution.

Senate Bills to Impose Sanctions with Respect to Turkey, and for Other Purposes. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) introduced S. 2644, which would sanction Turkish officials, investigate Turkish President Erdoğan’s personal finances, and impose fines on Turkey’s Halkbank, among other measures. These sanctions already exist in US law, but President Trump has refrained from using them. This bill would trigger those sanctions. By Friday, the bill was co-sponsored by 15 senators, including seven Republicans.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is continuing to move forward with a separate bill, S. 2641, sponsored by Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey). The bill would require the Trump Administration to craft a strategy to defend the “hard-won gains against ISIS” and to limit the group’s resurgence, following the US withdrawal of troops from Syria. It would also authorize funds toward humanitarian assistance for Syrian civilians, restrict arms sales to Turkey, and impose additional sanctions on a variety of actors.

On October 23, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) introduced a separate resolution, S.J. Res 59, which does not immediately call for sanctions. Instead it says that withdrawal should be halted “where practical,” and that President Trump should rescind the invitation for a November 13 meeting with President Erdoğan.

Members of Congress Have Continued to Push Forward on Sanctions on Turkey. Despite the reported ceasefire agreement, Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Eliot Engel (D-New York) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are working on a bill to place restrictions on trade and assistance to Turkey, which is likely to be brought to the House this week. The bill would prohibit arms transfers to Turkish military units in Syria and sanction any foreign person providing arms to Turkish forces in Syria.

Alongside McCaul and Engel, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) has announced a separate, harsher bill co-sponsored by 111 Republicans in the House, which would immediately sanction President Erdoğan and any entities that sell weapons to the Turkish military.

Senate Resolution on Government of Saudi Arabia. On October 17, the Senate passed S. 2635 which would require the director of the FBI to declassify all information relating to the Saudi government’s assistance to a citizen or national of Saudi Arabia who is departing the United States while awaiting trial or sentencing for a criminal offense committed in the United States.

Expressing the Sense of the House of Representatives Regarding US Efforts to Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Through a Negotiated Two-state Solution.  The House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced minor amendments to H. Res. 326, expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding US efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a negotiated two-state solution.

Amendments to S. 2132: Promoting Security and Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act of 2019. On October 17, the Senate Judiciary Committee adopted amendments to S. 2132 (previously covered in ACW’s October 9 brief). The amendments remove the link between the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act and Palestinians thereby allowing the Palestinian Authority to receive security aid. However, the amendments add that the Palestinian leadership consents to the jurisdiction of US courts should a Palestinian official come to the United States in an official capacity, or if they do not announce withdrawal from UN agencies within 120 days, among other conditions.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Situation in Syria and the Wider Region. On October 17, the Senate Armed Services Committee received a closed door briefing on the situation in Syria and the broader region from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. Though the hearing was not public, reports suggest that the committee expressed fears about the resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) and questioned the strength of the US human intelligence network, now that the relationship with the Kurds has been upended.

Chris Murphy on US-Saudi and US-Israel Relationships. On October 21, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) spoke at the Hudson Institute focusing particularly on his October 7 op-ed for The Atlantic (ACW covered this op-ed in the October 9 review). Murphy criticized Saudi actions that he said do not reflect US values (particularly the Khashoggi affair) and argued that the US policy of “no questions asked” has set a precedent for other actors. Murphy also explained that rethinking the US-Saudi relationship is not purely a question of values and human rights but one of national interest, citing concerns about funding for extremist groups.

On the US-Israel relationship, Sen. Murphy argued that Washington needs to be “hyper concerned” about Israeli security as the region becomes more unstable. However, he also questioned the United States’ credibility to act as a legitimate broker that delivers tough messages to both sides, something that President Trump has failed to achieve with regards to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Perhaps surprisingly, Murphy postulated about Israel as an apartheid state, arguing that the Democrats in 2020 will have to face the question of whether Israeli policies have impeded the prospects of a two-state solution beyond repair.

Assessing the Impact of Turkey’s Offensive in Northeastern Syria. On October 22, Special Representative for Syria Jim Jeffrey answered questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the impact of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. Jeffrey refuted the idea that the White House had given a green light to the offensive by withdrawing its troops and this became a point of contention with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), who also called for accountability for potential war crimes committed by Turkey. Most senators questioned the lack of a long-term strategy for Syria, while Jeffrey argued that there are multiple strategies that do not require ground forces. Sen. Rand Paul remained supportive of the president’s actions and asked that Jeffrey consider the US strategy should Syrian President Assad remain in power.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Mitch McConnell: Withdrawing from Syria is a Grave Mistake. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) released an op-ed on October 18 criticizing President Trump’s decision to remove troops from Syria. McConnell commented on the possible resurgence of terrorist groups in the region, arguing that the president’s decision and the following Turkish incursion “is creating a strategic nightmare for our country.”

Pelosi Meets King Abdullah II of Jordan to Discuss US-Jordan Strategic Partnership and More. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-New York), Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-California), and Representative Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) met with Jordanian King Abdullah II on October 20. The delegation discussed regional stability, refugee flows, and IS in the aftermath of the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria. The delegation also visited Afghanistan for meetings with Afghan leaders.

Engel and European Allies Condemn Turkey’s Operation in Northeastern Syria. On October 21, the House Foreign Affairs Committee along with representatives of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the European Parliament issued a statement condemning Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria as “military aggression and a violation of international law.” The statement outlines concerns about the resurgence of terrorism and instability in the region.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Pence, Pompeo Secure Turkey-SDF Ceasefire. On October 17, Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly agreed to a 120-hour ceasefire in northern Syria. Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were dispatched to Ankara to reach an agreement with Erdoğan; President Trump wrote a letter—which many viewed as controversial—to the Turkish president pressing him to find a compromise with the envoys. President Trump has since lifted the sanctions on Turkey, a move widely criticized, and suggested that the previously suspended November 13 meeting with Erdoğan will go ahead as planned.

Two US officials reported that the “ceasefire is not holding” between Turkey and Syria. Pompeo suggested that there is “relatively little fighting” in the region and Defense Secretary Mark Esper implied the same.

2) Department of State

Hale Meets with Yemeni Government Officials. Under Secretary of State David Hale met with officials of Yemen’s internationally recognized government on his swing through the Arabian Peninsula. He spoke with President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, as well as the prime minister and foreign minister, to reiterate US support for resolving the Yemen crisis and maintaining a unified Yemen.

Pompeo Meets with Netanyahu. On October 18, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem to ease Israeli concerns about the US withdrawal from Syria. Pompeo spoke of “all the efforts we’ve made to push back against the threat not only to Israel but to the region and the world from the Islamic Republic of Iran” to alleviate fears that Iran may exploit the power vacuum.

Pompeo Discusses Syria with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. After leaving Jerusalem, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a joint press point with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 18. Pompeo emphasized that NATO allies are “an important part of America’s national security” and thanked NATO partners who had worked alongside the United States during the course of its operations in Syria. He reiterated that Washington is opposed to the “Turkish incursion into northern Syria” and was “hopeful” that Turkey and Kurdish fighters would continue to adhere to the ceasefire that was agreed upon the day before, despite reports of ongoing clashes in the northeastern Syrian city of Ras al-Ayn.

Pompeo speaks at the Heritage Foundation. In an October 22 speech at the Heritage Foundation, Secretary Pompeo claimed that the Trump Administration “inherited a mess in Syria” from the previous administration. With respect to efforts to end the Turkish aggression, Pompeo stated that it is too early to determine its success and that the United States takes seriously Turkish concerns of terrorism from the PKK. On Iran, he argued that the Islamic Republic responds to strength, not supplication, and that American diplomacy has successfully shifted the United Kingdom and other European allies to a stronger stance after what he called Iran’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

3) Department of Defense

Esper speaks with Turkish Minister of Defense. On October 18, Defense Secretary Mark Esper released a statement following his phone call with the Turkish minister of defense. He noted that in the call, he emphasized the importance of adhering to the “full terms” of the agreement between Washington and Ankara to establish a ceasefire in northeastern Syria, announced the day before. Esper reiterated that the Trump Administration is still focused on “protecting religious and ethnic minorities in the region” but that the United States was continuing its “deliberate withdrawal” from Syria, as protecting US troops remains the administration’s “top priority.”

Withdrawal from Syria Could Take Weeks, According to Esper. In a joint press conference with senior Afghan officials, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper outlined that the US withdrawal from Syria will take weeks, not days, and that there is still “a ways to go.” When asked about reports of troops remaining to protect oil fields, Esper explained that troops in those areas are not yet in the phase of withdrawal and will work with the SDF to deny IS and others access to oil fields. He also stated that the United States will maintain combat air patrols in Syria with a possibility that a small force of US troops would remain in Syria—though this plan has not yet been presented to the president. According to a senior administration official, however, the president knows of the plan and is leaning in favor of keeping around 200 US troops in the area.

Esper Meets with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. For the first time since taking office, Defense Secretary Mike Esper traveled to Riyadh on October 21 to meet with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The visit was intended to reassure the kingdom of its bilateral ties with the United States in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Syria, raising concerns about American relationships with allies in the region. Despite sending an additional 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia, there is resentment about the fact that Riyadh will have to foot the bill. Esper rebuked criticisms that the US military is being used as a mercenary force, stating that “mercenary forces do things for the pay, we are doing this [to]… help defend our allies, second to deter Iran so we don’t have increasingly bad behavior, and third defend the international rules-based order.”

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Launches the Counter-Hizballah International Partnership to Thwart Illicit Financial Activity. On October 18, the Department of the Treasury announced that it had convened the first meeting of the Counter-Hizballah International Partnership (CHIP), which had representation from over 30 countries and was held on the sidelines of the World Bank/International Monetary Fund fall meetings. According to Sigal Mandelker, Treasury’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, “the CHIP unites the international community in an aggressive campaign to confront Hizballah’s evolving schemes.”

Financial Action Task Force Reiterates Terror Finance Risks in Iran. On October 18, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) concluded its 31st plenary meeting in Paris, France and reiterated Iranian terrorist financing risks. The FATF reimposed countermeasures on Iran and adopted a non-public update on the financing of IS, and a Mutual Evaluation Report of Turkey.

*Jonathan Adler and Halla Keir are research interns at Arab Center Washington DC.