On Monday, President Trump announced that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria’s northern border and allowing Turkey to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces stationed there. Two days later, Turkish forces invaded and launched artillery. Seven civilians have been killed, per The Associated Press.
Multiple leading Republicans — including many of Trump’s loudest supporters — expressed anger and frustration over his decision to vacate northeastern Syria.
“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the [Syrian President Bashar] Assad regime," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a statement. "I urge the president to exercise American leadership to keep together our multinational coalition to defeat ISIS and prevent significant conflict between our NATO ally Turkey and our local Syrian counterterrorism partners."
For a man who has basically ignored everything from Trump’s credible rape accusers to the Ukraine scandal, that’s about as solid a rebuke as you’re going to get. The Syria decision also rankled Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who laid into Trump’s decision on Twitter.
“I feel very bad for the Americans and allies who have sacrificed to destroy the ISIS Caliphate because this decision virtually reassures the reemergence of ISIS. So sad. So dangerous,” Graham wrote. “President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam. They are NOT tired of fighting us.”
You won’t find many Republicans more loyal to Trump than Graham, who frequently golfs with the president. Yet even Graham described the Syrian pullout as a “disaster in the making” that “forces Kurds to align with Assad and Iran” and “destroys Turkey’s relationship with U.S. Congress.” He additionally said the move would go down as a “stain on America’s honor for abandoning the Kurds.”
Nikki Haley, formerly Trump’s U.N. ambassador, tweeted, "We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake." And even Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), Trump’s former presidential rival and now one of his staunchest allies, said that it would “be DISGRACEFUL if we sat idly by while Turkey slaughters the Kurds, as public reports suggest that Turkish leader Erdogan explicitly told President Trump he intends to do. Kurds risked their lives — for many years — to fight alongside us.”
Whether or not these prominent Republicans plan to back up their criticism with any real action remains to be seen. Graham wrote Wednesday on Twitter that he “will lead [the] effort in Congress to make Erdogan pay a heavy price” for invading Syria, though no legislation has yet been introduced along those lines.
Meanwhile, Trump has tried to put some distance between his decisions and Turkey’s invasion. "This morning, Turkey, a NATO member, invaded Syria. The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea," Trump said in a statement. Earlier this week, he assured the American public that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey.”
But reports about a Sunday evening phone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicate that Trump essentially gave Erdogan a green light to move against the Kurds.
"President Trump was definitely out-negotiated and only endorsed the troop [withdrawal] to make it look like we are getting something,” a source on the National Security Council who was privy to the call told Newsweek. “But we are not getting something."
Trump has defended the move as part of his non-interventionist strategy. "From the first day I entered the political arena, I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars — especially those that don’t benefit the United States," he said in the statement.
In this sense, he’s telling the truth. Trump launched his campaign on promises of ending the wars abroad and built a following based on his dovish foreign policy coupled with his pledges to turn inward and, yes, “make America great again.” Him withdrawing from northeastern Syria — even if it means turning America’s back on longtime allies in the Kurds and leaving them vulnerable to danger at Turkey’s hands, and even if it only actually entails moving 50 to 100 troops elsewhere in the Middle East — is mostly consistent with the things he promised. It’s one more reminder that the president Republicans have largely fallen in line behind was a sharp departure from the typical GOP mold.
Trump said that he expects Turkey to “abide by all of its commitments,” including those to continue managing the camps for imprisoned ISIS fighters currently operated by the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. A senior adviser to Erdogan told CNN that the camps should be managed as a “a joint effort with the international community."
Many believe that Trump’s ongoing sympathy towards Erdogan’s interests, even when they are at odds with those of his party, are a product of his extensive business dealings in Turkey — including a Trump Tower development in Istanbul. "It always is a concern that those business ties, at the very least, color his judgment, and at the very worst are the reasons for his judgment," said Wendy Sherman, an official in the State Department during the Obama administration, in an interview with NBC News.
While the true reasoning behind Trump’s decision to let Erdogan invade Syria is not fully clear, one thing certainly is: The decision is yet another example of Trump siding with an autocratic leader rather than with traditionally American values. This time, there are thousands of Kurdish lives on the line. Whether Republicans in the Senate are willing to stand up to their leader outside of Twitter remains to be seen.