President Donald Trump surprised friends and adversaries alike this week by announcing that the U.S. would be withdrawing the roughly 2,000 troops deployed in northeastern Syria as part of the counter-ISIS campaign. While Democratic lawmakers condemned the initiative as a matter of course, an uncharacteristically sharp debate roiled Republican circles as many senior GOP officeholders condemned the move and urged the President to reconsider.
AN ONGOING SAGA
This week’s move advances a drama dating back to December 2018, when President Trump first announced over Twitter that the U.S. would be withdrawing its positions from Syria. Initial reports, indicating a timetable of 30 days, prompted the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, one of the most popular members of the administration. The Mattis departure, combined with subsequent pushback from U.S. allies, the Department of Defense, and Republican Senators, persuaded the President to decelerate the transition.
That is, until Monday. On October 7, the President announced, again via Twitter, “It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.” When reports emerged that Turkish forces had amassed along the border and were preparing a ground incursion into SDF-held territory, Trump added that “in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters” and 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.”
Although normally united in defense of President Trump’s agenda, many prominent congressional Republicans moved to condemn the decision and urge the President to reconsider. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican officeholder after Trump, said in a statement: "A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime … American interests are best served by American leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, who has developed a reputation for aggressively defending the President in the media, tweeted on October 7, “If press reports are accurate this is a disaster in the making.” He noted that the move “forces Kurds to align with Assad and Iran,” “destroys Turkey’s relationship with U.S. Congress,” and “will be a stain on America’s honor for abandoning the Kurds.” For his part, Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that “the Trump administration has made a grave mistake that will have implications far beyond Syria.”
Reactions in conservative media were similarly critical. Pat Robertson, an influential televangelist and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, said on October 7, “I believe [ …] the President of the United States is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen.” Likewise, the editorial board of National Review, a prominent conservative magazine, called the move “a serious mistake” and noted that “there is a cost to allowing allies to become cannon fodder. It deters future alliances, and local alliances are particularly important if America hopes to combat jihadists without large-scale troop deployments.”
BACKERS OF WITHDRAWAL
On the opposite side of the ledger, defenders of the President’s decision were fewer but still notable. Senator Paul, a committed anti-interventionist, declared, “I stand with [President Trump] today as he once again fulfills his promises to stop our endless wars and have a true America First foreign policy.” He later condemned the chorus of Republican critics of withdrawal as a “war caucus.”
Sounding a more legalistic note, Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham offered moderate pushback to the Republican critics of the President’s withdrawal plan, effectively implying the current military authorization was illegal: “Whether we're talking Syria or Somalia, we should not have our troops deployed in a war-time footing without a clear Congressional authorization. Using the old 9/18/2001 resolution to cover today's actions is obscene.”