Bipartisan house majority condemns Trump for Syria withdrawal

(Hussein Malla | AP) An Iraqi Kurdish humanitarian worker carries a Syrian boy, who is newly displaced with his family by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, at the Bardarash camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. The camp used to host Iraqis displaced from Mosul during the fight against the Islamic State group and was closed two years ago. The U.N. says more around 160,000 Syrians have been displaced since the Turkish operation started last week, most of them internally in Syria.

Washington • The House on Wednesday delivered a bipartisan condemnation of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces just inside Syria’s border, registering broad opposition in Congress to a move that has thrown the region into bloody chaos and unraveled Middle East policy.

Republicans and Democrats banded together to approve a resolution opposing Trump’s acquiescence to the Turkish assault against the Kurds, who have been crucial American allies in the fight against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. The measure passed, 354-60, not long before a bipartisan group of congressional leaders was slated to meet with Trump to discuss the incursion, and hours before Vice President Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, were to travel to Ankara to call for a cease-fire in a battle the president appears to have greenlit.

“At President Trump’s hands, American leadership has been laid low, and American foreign policy has become nothing more than a tool to advance his own interests,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee who introduced the measure. “Today we make clear that the Congress is a coequal branch of government and we want nothing to do with this disastrous policy.”

The resolution, which is largely symbolic, upbraids the withdrawal as “beneficial to adversaries of the United States government” including Russia, Syria and Iran, and calls on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to immediately end unilateral military action in northern Syria. A companion measure in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., was introduced on Tuesday.

It is the latest bipartisan rebuke by Congress of Trump’s mercurial approach to foreign policy. Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill have shown they are most comfortable criticizing the president on matters of international affairs, and have previously joined Democrats to denounce his administration’s unflagging support of Saudi Arabia after the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. And they declared their disapproval earlier this year of attempts to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria in a bipartisan effort led by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader.

But Trump’s decision last week to essentially clear the way for a Turkish military operation against America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria has provoked the strongest response yet from Republicans, including many of the president’s most reliable allies.

On Wednesday, after Trump said Turkey’s invasion into Syria is “not our problem” and that the Kurds “are no angels,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called it “an astonishing statement which I completely and totally reject.”

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, wrote on Twitter that it is “Impossible to understand why @realDonaldTrump is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered and enabling the return of ISIS.”

Hawkish lawmakers like Cheney and Graham, as well as Democratic leaders in the House, are preparing additional legislative action to punish the Turks’ incursion. Graham introduced a sanctions package with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., last week, that would impose harsher sanctions on Turkey than the White House has levied, including the prohibition of U.S. military assistance and the freezing of the American assets of Erdogan and other Turkish leaders.

A small handful of libertarian-minded Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, have defended Trump’s decision as being consistent with the president’s campaign promise to end America’s intractable military conflicts.

“If we can save one American soldier from losing their life or limbs in another senseless Middle Eastern war, it is worthwhile,” Paul wrote on Twitter. “@realDonaldTrump knows this.”

It is unclear exactly how far congressional Republicans will go in their objections to Trump’s latest decision. Some of the president’s defenders who immediately vented their ire at the Syria withdrawal, including Graham, have since cooled their tone.

Graham, for example, released a long statement on Monday after meeting with Trump at the White House and joining a call with Erdogan.

“The president’s team has a plan and I intend to support them as strongly as possible, and to give them reasonable time and space to achieve our mutual goals,” Graham said.

Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., who had sharply criticized the withdrawal, emerged from a meeting with the White House on Tuesday sounding reassured.

“It was useful to see a lot of the promises that Erdogan made the president and to understand how forcefully the president, Secretary Esper, told the Turks across the board not to do this,” Waltz said in a brief interview, referring to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper. Waltz added that the White House was “livid” with Erdogan.

Pence and Pompeo are to meet with the Turkish president on Thursday to relay Trump’s demand that Erdogan negotiate a cease-fire, and to reiterate the president’s threat to impose economic sanctions if he does not.

Trump is also set to meet with Erdogan in November at the White House. But lawmakers on Wednesday called for the president to cancel the talks.

“Erdogan’s attack on our Kurdish partners has served to liberate ISIS prisoners, bolster the Assad regime, and strengthen Russia,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. “His invitation to the White House should be revoked.”