Utah Sen. Mitt Romney condemns Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria

(Patrick Semansky | AP file photo) In this May 21, 2019 file photo, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to reporters after a classified members-only briefing on Iran, Capitol Hill in Washington.

Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney on Thursday offered a strong rebuke of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull American troops from northern Syria, allowing Turkish forces to attack the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters.

“The decision to abandon the Kurds violates one of our most sacred duties,” Romney, a Utah Republican, said on the Senate floor. “It strikes at American honor. What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history.”

Romney — a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he said wasn’t consulted about the move — called for public hearings on the White House’s decision to withdraw the troops, a move that left Kurdish fighters facing bombings by Turkey and forcing thousands, if not more, to flee the region. The Kurds have helped U.S. soldiers fight the Islamic State terrorist group in the area. Turkey and the Kurds have long been adversaries.

Romney charged that Trump’s action weakens U.S. efforts to fight terrorism — as well as allows Russia, Iran, Syria and Turkey to gain a bigger foothold in the region.

“At a time when we’re applying maximum pressure on Iran, by giving them a stronger hand in Syria, we’ve actually weakened that pressure,” Romney said. “Russia’s objective to play a greater role in the Middle East has also been greatly enhanced. The Kurds, out of desperation, have now aligned with [Syrian President Bashar Assad]. So America is diminished, Russia, Iran and Assad are strengthened. And so I ask how and why this decision was reached?”

Romney praised a five-day cease-fire Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to in a meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“But at the heart of this matter is a central question of why these terms and assurances were not negotiated before the president consented to withdraw our troops,” Romney said.

Trump has said that he pulled American soldiers from the area because the United States cannot continue endless wars in the Middle East.

“And when I ran, I ran on the basis we're going to bring our great soldiers back home where they belong,” Trump said. “We don’t have to fight these endless wars.”

The president added Thursday that it’s “fine” if Syria wants some help from Russia, but America shouldn’t be fighting over land in the Middle East.

“They’ve got a lot of sand over there,” the president said. “So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

Romney pointed out Thursday that the United States was withdrawing 1,500 soldiers from Syria but at the same time adding 2,000 troops in Saudi Arabia. And the Utah senator questioned why the Kurds apparently had no advance notice that American soldiers would be withdrawn but Turkey must have known.

“Clearly the Turks had a heads-up, because they were able to start bombing within mere hours,” Romney said. “I simply don’t understand why the administration did not explain in advance to [Turkish President] Erdogan, that it’s unacceptable for Turkey to attack an American ally.”

Romney also pushed back on supporters of Trump’s action who say America shouldn’t be fighting for the Kurds, noting that Congress gave the president the power to fight terrorism in Syria. The decision has been made, he said, to commit to the Kurds to combat the Islamic State group.

“Once you jump in the ocean to save a drowning soul, you don’t turn around with the excuse that you didn’t have to jump in in the first place,” Romney said. “It is a matter of commitment.”

Romney’s fellow Utahn in the Senate, Mike Lee, had previously voiced his support for removing the U.S. presence in the conflict.

“Thank you, President Trump, for withdrawing U.S. military personnel from Syria,” Lee tweeted earlier this month. “Undeclared wars are as unconstitutional as they are inadvisable. Those who disagree with this decision should ask Congress to declare war or otherwise authorize the use of military force.”

While Romney has been one of the few Republican senators to criticize Trump over his requests for Ukraine and China investigate a Democratic rival, several Republicans have spoken in grave terms about the death and humanitarian toll that withdrawing American troops from Syria will have.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said this week that American and Kurdish soldiers have “fought heroically” to corner Islamic State fighters and the president’s decision was wrong.

“Abandoning this fight now and withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria would re-create the very conditions that we have worked hard to destroy and invite the resurgence of ISIS,” McConnell said. “And such a withdrawal would also create a broader power vacuum in Syria that will be exploited by Iran and Russia, a catastrophic outcome for the United States’ strategic interests.”

All four of Utah’s House members — Republican Reps. Rob Bishop, John Curtis and Chris Stewart and Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams — supported a resolution Wednesday to oppose the withdrawal of American troops from supporting the Kurds in Syria.