WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Sunday night’s announcement by the White House that it would not oppose a Turkish attack across the border into northeast Syria touched off a bipartisan firestorm in Washington on Monday.
In addition to Democrats, it included what The Washington Post described as a “swift torrent of Republican criticism.” It also included evangelical Christians, who are an important part of President Donald Trump’s political base, and who deeply appreciate the Kurds’ religious tolerance and the protection they provide Christians and other minorities.
The barrage of criticism appeared to prompt a late afternoon briefing on Monday by a senior administration official. However, the briefing failed to clarify many questions, above all an issue raised by something Trump tweeted on Monday afternoon, as criticism mounted.
“If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits,” he tweeted, “I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.”
As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, 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 (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2019
If Trump is able to stop Turkey from actions of which he disapproves in the future, why doesn’t he stop Turkey now? Why not prevent a Turkish attack? Why wait?
The late afternoon briefing seemed to suggest that the White House was modifying its original stance, even as remarks made by Trump an hour later raised renewed questions.
Initially, Washington’s orders to US troops in Syria were to pull out entirely, as NBC News reported in an article entitled, “Chaos in Syria, Washington after Trump call with Erdogan unleashed Turkish military.”
As NBC News explained, “American forces in northeastern Syria received an urgent, unexpected alert early Monday morning to pull back from their posts,” following Trump’s phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“‘We're departing the field,’ the messages said, according to current and former senior US defense officials,” who spoke with NBC.
However, by the time of the 5:00 PM briefing, the US position seemed to have toughened against Turkey. US troops now in Syria (which number about 1,000) would not be leaving the country, a senior administration official told reporters.
Rather the 50 to 100 Special Operations Forces in the area that Turkey will attack are to be transferred to safer areas in Syria, he said.
Indeed, following that briefing, the news magazine, US News & World Report, published a story under the headline, “Trump Administration Appears to Reverse Syria Decision Following Backlash.”
However, just an hour later, as Trump met with senior US military leaders, he restated his earlier position.
Trump did say that only 50 US soldiers had been moved, but reaffirmed his intention to leave Syria soon. “We’ve been in Syria for a long time,” he said. “It was supposed to be a very short hit on ISIS,” he claimed—although no US official ever gave a time frame for the US presence there.
Indeed, among Trump’s critics was his close Congressional ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina.) Among Graham’s complaints was that Trump sounded a lot like former President Barack Obama, who withdrew US forces from Iraq in 2011, but had to send them back just three years later to fight the Islamic State.
Sen. Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R, Kentucky), was also prominent among Republicans criticizing Trump. “A precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime,” a statement from McConnell’s office said. “And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup.”
As The Washington Post reported, McConnell’s statement raised the prospect of “veto-proof action” in Congress “to oppose [Trump’s] decision.”
Sen. Graham offered a truly blistering critique of that decision on Fox News, Trump’s favorite television network. “The biggest lie being told by the administration is ISIS being defeated, the caliphate destroyed,” Graham told the morning talk show, “Fox and Friends.”
Graham also tweeted that he had spoken with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D, Maryland), and “we will introduce bipartisan sanctions against Turkey if they invade Syria and will call for their suspension from NATO if they attack Kurdish forces.”
Just spoke to Sen @ChrisVanHollen about situation in Syria.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 7, 2019
We will introduce bipartisan sanctions against Turkey if they invade Syria and will call for their suspension from NATO if they attack Kurdish forces who assisted the U.S. in the destruction of the ISIS Caliphate.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R, Utah) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D, Connecticut), the senior Republican and senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, released a joint statement that began, “The President’s decision to abandon our Kurdish allies in Northern Syria in the face of an assault by Turkey is a betrayal that will have grave humanitarian and national security consequences.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R, Florida) warned that a US withdrawal would "confirm Iran's view of this administration,” suggesting Trump had talked tough, but done little to confront Iranian aggression. Such weakness, Rubio suggested, could prompt Iran to "escalate [its] hostile attacks.”
Amb. Nikki Haley, Trump’s first UN ambassador, was also among the critics, tweeting, “The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake.”
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. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) October 7, 2019
In addition, the Republican-leaning editors of The Wall Street Journal issued a blistering critique. Their editorial began with a warning that Trump “may now undo” his success in the territorial defeat of the Islamic State “with a retreat from Syria that will also signal to US allies that the White House can’t be trusted.”
“This looks like a betrayal of the YPG, which lost 11,000 soldiers fighting against ISIS,” the editors of the Journal continued. “America armed the Kurds in that fight, and they trusted the US when they were asked to dismantle defensive positions near the Turkish border as part of the buffer-zone negotiations with Ankara.”
“Mr. Trump compounded the injury with insult when he tweeted Monday morning that the ‘Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.’ For Mr. Trump, foreign policy is always a transaction, never a matter of principle,” the editors added.
The criticism of Trump was not limited to political figures and writers. It included an important part of his electoral base: evangelical Christians.
The Trump administration has made religious freedom, including the protection of religious minorities, among them, Christians in the Middle East, an important part of its policy. In that context, senior Trump administration officials have repeatedly recognized and praised the Kurds for their religious tolerance.
READ MORE: US Envoy hails religious tolerance of Kurds, stresses need for Peshmerga, ISF security coordinationThe Washington DC organization, In Defense of Christians, which hosted Vice President Mike Pence two years ago at its annual conference, issued a statement on Monday, warning, “Religious minorities in Northeast Syria have reason to be wary of the Turkish government, especially after Turkey invaded Afrin in 2018 using Islamist militias and forced over 300 Christian families to flee.”
“Many Yezidi communities were also targeted,” it added, and “those affected remain displaced to this day.”
Most notably, the well-known televangelist, Pat Robertson, warned on “The 700 Club,” the talk show he hosts on the Christian Broadcasting Network, that Trump was making a huge mistake in Syria.
Describing Erdogan as a “thug,” Robertson affirmed, “There are 36 million Kurds who need their own country,” while he warned that Trump’s decision would allow “the Christians and the Kurds to be massacred by the Turks.”
“I believe, and I want to say this with great solemnity,” he continued, “the president of the United States is in great danger of losing the mandate of heaven, if he permits this to happen.”