WASHINGTON—Overwhelming bipartisan backlash met President Donald Trump’s announcement Sunday that U.S. troops would withdraw from northeastern Syria, abandoning the Kurdish fighters who supported the battle against Islamic State (ISIS).
Many of the president’s allies in the Republican Party joined with their colleagues across the aisle to urge Trump to reconsider, citing humanitarian, national security, and geopolitical concerns.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the move might jeopardize the coalition that had formed a partnership with the United States to defeat ISIS. Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted Monday that the United States should “have the backs of our allies. … Leaving [the Kurds] to die is a big mistake.”
U.S. troops rolled out, and Turkey, which considers the Kurds “terrorists,” rolled in less than 48 hours after a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The bombardments so far have appeared to target Christian sites and neighborhoods. At least two children were reported dead.
Toufic Baaklini, president of In Defense of Christians, said that if the United States and other nations fail to act, “Turkey will complete the work that ISIS tried to do in eradicating Christians from this region.”
The fighting on the border between Turkey and Syria also threatens U.S. interests in the region, said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and senior fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He said the lack of a U.S. presence opens a vacancy for other bad actors to move in.
“We could see Russian, Iranian, [Syrian government] regime advances to control these territories,” Erdemir said. To defend from the assault at the border, Kurdish forces will have to shift their focus away from guarding detention centers that hold more than 70,000 ISIS militants, giving the terrorists an opportunity to escape and regroup.
Should ISIS resurge, the United States might not find such loyal partners in its future endeavors to counter the enemy. “Even if there is now a radical U-turn by the United States, the damage is done,” Erdemir said. “There is a perception in the Middle East that Iran and Russia always stick with their allies. … Now that the U.S. is abandoning the Syrian Democratic Forces—one consequence will be [they] could look to Iran and Moscow as they attempt to diversify their options.”
Earlier this week, Trump doubled down on his decision and tweeted that if Turkey did anything that he considered “off-limits,” he would retaliate by moving to “destroy and obliterate” its economy.
In the meantime, U.S. lawmakers from both parties appear ready to buck the president’s foreign policy and attempt to take matters into their own hands.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced he and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., agreed to pile sanctions on Turkey. Van Hollen said they will introduce and ask for an immediate vote on the bill as soon as Congress returns from recess on Tuesday.
“The Turkish economy is in a very fragile state right now—and that could make it more vulnerable to the impact of U.S. sanctions,” said Jim Phillips, a Middle East expert for The Heritage Foundation, who added he did not think sanctions would successfully deter Turkish military action.
Erdemir said the region might never recover from some of the consequences: “The area we’re talking about is the cradle of ancient Christianity. … That’s what we’re putting at risk. That’s one mistake we’re not coming back from. Once you lose these last communities and their heritage, no matter how much you invest in, you will not be able to resuscitate it. I think that is why it’s very important for foreign and security politics to be prudent, to avoid radical turns—because the risks are enormous.”