WASHINGTON ― As Congress seeks a way to reverse potential damage caused by the U.S. military’s pullback from northern Syria, the House is expected to vote Wednesday on a resolution condemning President Donald Trump’s decision.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Tuesday urged Republican lawmakers to back the measure. Bipartisan support could add pressure for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to bring the measure to the floor ― though McConnell was noncommittal about any action Tuesday afternoon.
The measure underscores an overwhelming congressional consensus that Trump’s decision has damaged U.S. interests in the region and helped adversaries, including the Islamic State group, Russia and Iran.
“The chaos and insecurity unleashed in Syria by President Trump’s disastrous decision to precipitously withdraw from northern Syria require strong, smart leadership from Congress," Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement. “With one voice, we call on President Trump to support Kurdish communities, to work to ensure that the Turkish military acts with restraint, and to present a clear strategy to defeat ISIS.”
Turkey has launched a military operation targeting Kurdish fighters, which the country considers to be terrorists. The Kurds have been the top U.S. ally in the region against ISIS militants.
The resolution, from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, says Congress opposes the troop pullback. The withdrawal was followed by Turkey’s attacks on Syrian Kurds.
An identical bipartisan measure is being introduced in the Senate.
The House measure says Turkey should halt military actions in Syria and that the U.S. should send humanitarian aid to the embattled Kurds. It also calls on Trump to produce “a clear and specific plan for the enduring defeat” of ISIS.
Engel and McCaul also offered sanctions against Turkey, and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., are expected to introduce their own sanctions legislation on Thursday. Though McConnell has not committed to bringing the legislation to the Senate floor, Van Hollen told reporters: “We’re building momentum.”
On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a closed-door hearing with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley in an effort to find a substantive path for Congress to help turn the crisis around.
“There just isn’t an easy answer for that, and that’s why we’re having the hearing," SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told reporters.
Describing himself as a longtime friend of Masoud Barzani, who is a former president of Kurdistan, Inhofe ― a staunch Republican ― said he disagreed with both Trump’s decision to withdraw the troops and with Turkey’s subsequent invasion, “which might end up in the mass murder of a lot of people.”
Inhofe suggested the Republican U.S. president, despite campaigning on ending “endless wars,” is paying a political price for this recent move. By Inhofe’s reckoning, when Trump attempted to justify his action at a rally in Minneapolis last week, “his followers didn’t agree with that position.”
“There’s no state that’s a stronger Trump state than Oklahoma, and yet [calls to our office] have been 20-to-1 in opposition to what he wanted to do,” Inhofe said. “I’m one of the strongest supporters of this president, but I disagree with him on this.”
While McConnell has not said what action the Senate might take, he has indirectly criticized Trump’s decision and, in a floor speech Tuesday, voiced “grave concern” about the U.S. response to the escalating crisis.
McConnell called for the U.S. to continue its support of its Syrian Kurdish allies, and he described NATO ally Turkey’s escalation of hostilities against the Kurds as “completely and totally unacceptable.”
Help from Kurdish fighters had nearly defeated ISIS, McConnell said, which left “a power vacuum begging for the meddling influence of Russia, leaving northeastern Syria wide open for Iran to extend its reach unimpeded all the way from Tehran to the doorstep of our friends in Israel.”
In his Senate floor speech, McConnell only mentioned Trump to say earlier this year a bipartisan supermajority of senators supported a measure against the early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan, when it looked like Trump was planning to withdraw from Syria.
“The Senate spoke clearly and said that we must ensure we have set the conditions for an enduring defeat of the terrorists before any withdrawal,” McConnell said.
In his remarks, McConnell said he looked forward to speaking with lawmakers of both parties and the administration about "how the U.S. can stand with our partners and provide strong, principled and consistent global leadership.”
The remarks came as Russia moved to fill the void left when Trump decided to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria, deploying troops to keep apart advancing Syrian government forces and Turkish troops. The American move effectively abandoned the Kurdish fighters who were allied with the U.S. and cleared the way for Turkey’s invasion aimed at crushing them.
Amid broad criticism of his decision, Trump took executive action to levy new financial penalties on Turkey, which would target Turkish officials involved in human rights abuses or that threaten “peace, security or stability in Syria.”
The United States also called on Turkey to stop the invasion and declare a ceasefire, and Trump is sending Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser Robert O’Brien to Ankara as soon as possible in an attempt to begin negotiations.
Pence said Trump spoke directly to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who promised not attack the border town of Kobani, which in 2015 witnessed the Islamic State group’s first defeat in a battle by American-backed Kurdish fighters.
Trump said the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops who had been partnering with local Kurdish fighters to battle ISIS in northern Syria are leaving the country. They will remain in the Middle East, he said, to “monitor the situation” and to prevent a revival of the militant group — a goal that even Trump’s allies say has become much harder as a result of the U.S. pullout.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.