A US Senate committee has approved legislation to sanction Turkey over its offensive in northeast Syria across two Kurdish cantons.
The Foreign Relations Committee voted 18-4 for the “Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act of 2019”. It will now be considered by the full Senate.
The Committee also condemned Turkey’s purchased of S-400 advanced anti-air missile systems from Russia.
The Committee chair, Republican Sen. Jim Risch, and ranking Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez said, “Now’s the time for the Senate to come together and take this opportunity to change Turkey’s behavior.”
One Republican, Sen. Rand Paul, opposed the act in support of Donald Trump’s endorsement of the Turkish cross-border offensive, launched on October 9 alongside anti-Assad fighters. He claimed it would weaken Presidential power and make it more difficult to negotiate with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over Syria and the S-400 purchase.
But other Committee members of both parties pushed back, criticizing both the Turkish Government and Trump’s order for the withdrawal of all 1,000 US troops from northern Syria.
Trump v. Pentagon
On October 6, during a phone call with Erdoğan, Trump accepted the offensive into a zone — 480 km (270 miles) long and 30 km (19 miles) long, east across the Euphrates River to Iraq — in which Erdoğan says he will resettle up to 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Trump then called for the removal of the US personnel, deployed alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that were created in autumn 2015 to remove the Islamic State from northeast Syria.
The Turkish offensive quickly seized a corridor along the border between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain. On October 22, Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced joint military oversight of the zone. The agreement restated the Turkish President’s demand for the withdrawal of the Kurdish militia YPG, the leading element in the US-supported SDF.
Ankara considers the YPG as “terrorists” who are part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.
The Pentagon pushed back against Trump’s withdrawal order. The US military not only says that the resurgence of ISIS must be prevented and that Kurdish allies must not be betrayed, but also that an American presence is a buffer against Iran’s involvement in Syria propping up the Assad regime.
Giving Trump the rationale that Kurdish-held oilfields must be kept from the Islamic State, the Defense Department has retained 600 troops in northeast Syria. However, they are outside the zone claimed by Turkey.
Criticism from US Legislators
Members of the House Armed Services Committee chided Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley over the withdrawal on a Wednesday hearing.
“The American handshake has to mean something,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former Defense Department official, said.
Milley pushed back against Slotkin and Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot, saying that he had to protect US troops in the face of the Turkish offensive:
[I] personally recommended to pull out 28 special forces soldiers” from northern Syria “in the face of 15,000 Turks….I’m not going to allow 28 American soldiers to be killed and slaughtered just to call someone’s bluff.
Committee Chairman Adam Smith and Slotkin noted that the Turkish buildup of forces on the border only began after December 2018, when Trump first ordered US withdrawal followiung a phone call with Erdoğan. The Pentagon also blunted that command, ensuring 1,000 troops remained alongside the SDF and at a base in eastern Syria near the Iraq border.
But an emboldened Erdoğan quickly announced the “safe zone” across the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Cezire, and his intention to destroy the YPG.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned in protest over Trump’s initiative, leading Slotkin to remark to his successor Esper: “Mr. Secretary, the only reason you are sitting here today is because General Mattis resigned almost exactly a year ago today on the basis of the President threatening this very decision.”
Turkey immediately denounced the developments in Congress.
The Foreign Ministry said the hearings and sanctions bill were “a new manifestation of disrespect for our sovereign decisions regarding our national security….These initiatives do not have any function other than to harm Turkish-U.S. relations.”
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said, “It is understood that members of Congress have shut their eyes and ears to the truth.”