Amid 1st Signs of US Withdrawal from Syria, Congress Pushes Back Against Trump

A U.S. soldier walks on a newly installed position, near the tense front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, Wednesday, April 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A U.S. soldier walks on a newly installed position, near the tense front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, Wednesday, April 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Members of Congress called on President Donald Trump Thursday to reverse a decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria -- a move they say would be a gift to the Islamic State, Russia, Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The bipartisan group of House and Senate members, including some of Trump's most loyal backers, also charged that the withdrawal would amount to a "betrayal" of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have driven ISIS from most of eastern Syria.

However, Trump appeared to be resolute in following through on his stunning announcement Wednesday that ISIS has been defeated and the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria are coming home.

In a series of statements via Twitter on Thursday, Trump said, "After historic victories against ISIS, it's time to bring our great young people home!"

On some points, the president's statements appeared to be contradictory. He said that ISIS had been defeated but the fight against the remnants of ISIS in Syria would now be left to Russia and Iran.

"Time for others to finally fight" against ISIS, Trump said. "Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pointed out the contradictions in a joint news conference with Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., during which they said they would offer a Senate resolution calling for Trump to reverse his withdrawal order.

Similar action was underway in the House, where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Trump's decision "dangerous."

Graham said Trump's order "literally came out of left field. None of us believes that ISIS has been defeated. The war has not yet been won."

Reed, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Army Ranger, said, "Simply because the president says that ISIS is defeated is not reality."

Reed cited recent testimony before the committee by Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who has been nominated to become the next commander of U.S. Central Command. In a hearing, McKenzie said ISIS would make a comeback if the U.S. relieved the pressure.

And "the president just relieved the pressure," Reed said.

Menendez, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "Christmas came early to Russia" in Trump's withdrawal decision. "Only in the president's parallel alternate universe is ISIS defeated."

Separately, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, an Iraq war veteran, said in a statement that the U.S. mission in Syria is "to defeat ISIS, and that is yet to be accomplished."

As Congress debated the withdrawal, the apparent first signs on the ground of the U.S. leaving Syria began to emerge Thursday with reports from the region that U.S. troops were pulling back from isolated observation posts in northeastern Syria and re-supply trucks were turning around to head back into Iraq.

The reports could not be independently confirmed, but Reuters, citing an unidentified U.S. official, reported Thursday that the small State Department contingent in Syria had been told to leave within 24 hours.

Turkey's state Anadolu news agency and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also reported protests against the withdrawal at several small U.S. bases in eastern Syria. Anadolu also reported that the U.S. withdrawal could take place within 60-100 days.

The observation posts were set up earlier this month by order of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to provide Turkey with early warning of regional threats, but they also served to protect the SDF from Turkish attack.

There was no immediate response to the reports from the Pentagon, which has referred questions on the withdrawal to the White House, only to have the White House refer questions back to the Pentagon.

NATO ally Turkey responded to Trump's withdrawal announcement by renewing pledges Thursday to attack the U.S.-backed SDF, which has been successful in driving ISIS from most of eastern Syria, once U.S. troops were out of the way.

Turkey has charged that the YPG (People's Protection Units), the main fighting force within the SDF, is allied with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), a group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S. Mattis has denied the connection.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Thursday that the Turkish military is preparing "intensely for a counter-terrorism military operation" against the YPG in the flashpoint section of northeastern Syria, Manbij and in areas east of the Euphrates River.

"Whatever they dig, be it trenches or tunnels, when the time comes, they will be buried in the trenches that they dug. There should be no doubt regarding this," Akar said, according to Anadolu and the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.

Despite Trump's announcement, France, which has about 1,000 troops in Syria partnering with U.S. service members in supporting the SDF, said its forces will remain.

"For now, of course we remain in Syria," France's European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said on CNews television, adding that "the fight against terrorism is not over."

Israel appeared to have been blindsided by Trump's withdrawal announcement. To Israel's advantage, U.S. troops currently maintain a small outpost at Al Tanf in Syria near the Jordanian border that serves to disrupt the flow of arms to Iran's Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militias.

Al Tanf also serves as a buffer against Hezbollah and Syrian regime encroachments to the south. In a sign of the unease in Israel, the Jerusalem Post ran an opinion piece under the headline "How Russia Defeated America In Syria."

In televised remarks Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "We will continue to act very aggressively against Iran's efforts to entrench in Syria," a reference to periodic Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah.

"We do not intend to reduce our efforts," Netanyahu said. "We will intensify them, and I know that we do so with the full support and backing of the United States."

For now, the surprise announcement by Trump and the relative silence from the White House and the Pentagon on how the withdrawal would be implemented have left several open questions:

  • Will U.S. airstrikes continue in support of the SDF and to protect SDF fighters from Russia, Iran, Syria and Turkey?
  • Will U.S. artillery units in Iraq continue cross-border fire in support of the SDF as they have for the past several months?
  • Will the State Department continue with the long-range plan to help rebuild in areas taken from ISIS by the SDF at heavy cost, such as Raqqa, the former capital of the "caliphate"?
  • What will happen to the estimated 3,000 ISIS prisoners now held by the SDF?
  • And lastly, what will be the status going forward of Mattis, who has consistently backed Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve and U.S. Central Command in maintaining that the U.S. mission in Syria is far from over.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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