Reed Discusses Kurds, Syria, and Turkey on the Senate Floor
Mr. President, I rise this afternoon to discuss the situation in Syria. Let me commend my colleague Senator Romney for his very thoughtful and very timely and very important comments. We all recognize that the situation in Syria is highly fluid. I think it is important to state the case with respect to the President’s decision to acquiesce to President Erdogan’s offensive against the Kurds. The President’s decision is a disaster for our partners in the fight against ISIS and United States foreign policy more broadly.
While I welcome the temporary cease-fire announced a short time ago and hope that a permanent cease-fire can be achieved, it does not absolve President Trump of his responsibility for his betrayal of our Kurdish partners and his role in unleashing violence and instability in northern Syria. It is not clear whether Turkey made any concessions as part of the deal struck with the U.S. delegation or whether Kurdish forces will comply. If not, I am concerned that additional violence is likely to follow and we will have little leverage to prevent it. In fact, there is a quote attributed to the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, by the White House reporter for CNN. She quotes the Turkish Foreign Minister as saying: This is not a cease-fire. We will pause the operation for 120 hours in order for the terrorists to leave. We will only stop the operation if our conditions are met. So, indeed, even this supposed ceasefire may not materialize as a ceasefire.
But the reality is that the blood of many Kurds is on President Trump’s hands, and thousands of hardened ISIS prisoners could be let loose as a result of his hasty and uninformed decision. President Trump’s decision to abandon our close partners also strengthens the hand of Erdogan, Putin, Assad, and Khamenei. Those are not friends; they are, in many cases, adversaries and antagonists. Members of the administration claim that the U.S. Government opposed the Turkish incursion, but the President’s own actions and statements make clear that he gave Erdogan a green light. The President ordered our military to begin a phased withdrawal from Syria last December—a decision that prompted the resignation of former Secretary of Defense Mattis and that surely gave the Turks the impression that he would fold when pressed by Erdogan. Not surprisingly, he did. In that phone call, Erdogan was pushing against an open door. He knew it. The President knew it. That is why the Turks went across the border.
Stating that we should let the Kurds and Turks fight it out because of their longstanding grievances, as the President has said repeatedly, betrays both our national security interests in the Middle East and our own American ideals. It is shameful that the White House’s statement that was released after the President’s call with Erdogan did not even criticize the planned Turkish incursion or warn of potential consequences if it went forward. It wasn’t until the following day, after a bipartisan and international outcry, that the President began to express any concerns about Turkish plans while at the same time reiterating his invitation for Erdogan to visit the White House next month. It is impossible to read the President’s initial statements as anything but acquiescence. Furthermore, the President’s statements over the following days have sought to distance the United States from the Kurds and the foreseeable consequences of his decision with regard to ISIS and the humanitarian challenges in northern Syria. The violence we have witnessed over the last few days in northern Syria has been the direct result of an impulsive President who has made decisions that are counter to the advice of our national security experts. President Trump has often expressed disdain for the career military, diplomatic, and intelligence professionals our Nation relies on to develop and implement sound national security policy. We are once again seeing the ramifications of his incompetence.
The President’s stunning ignorance of the complexities in the Middle East was on full display over the weekend in a tweet in which he seemed not to have an understanding of the location or identity of the separate Kurdish groups with whom we have partnered in Syria and Iraq. The Secretaries of Defense and State both insist they were consulted by the President on this decision. Maybe so, but it is clear that he didn’t heed their advice or that of our national security experts. I am not aware of any security experts who advocated for standing by while the Turkish military carried out an offensive against our Kurdish partners. In fact, on October 2—just 4 days before the phone call between Presidents Trump and Erdogan—the State Department’s Special Envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, publicly warned: We certainly think that a conflict along the Turkey-Syria border would serve the interests of all the bad actors in the conflict and in the surrounding region—whether that is ISIS or al-Qaida or the Iranian regime or what have you. That was President Trump’s Special Envoy.
The President’s capitulation to Erdogan runs directly counter to all of the administration’s stated objectives in Syria. The administration’s stated strategy is to, No. 1, defeat ISIS; No. 2, force the removal of Iranian-aligned foreign forces from Syria; and No. 3, achieve a negotiated political settlement to the Syrian civil war in line with the United Nations’ resolutions. The security and humanitarian catastrophe that President Erdogan has unleashed with Trump’s approval will make achieving any of these goals nearly impossible. The violence in northern Syria over the last few days has led to the displacement of at least 160,000 people, the suspension of humanitarian assistance into affected areas, the escape of an unidentified number of ISIS detainees, and the horrific killings of unarmed civilians, including incidents that Secretary of Defense Esper has described as potential war crimes. Just weeks ago, at our urging, the SDF removed personnel from border areas, relocated heavy weapons, and destroyed defensive fortifications in northern Syria. They did so even in the face of a continued Turkish military buildup along the Syrian border because they believed the United States and Turkey had agreed to a security mechanism in good faith that could avoid bloodshed. It seems that they were wrong to put their faith in this administration.
The Turkish incursion into Syria has undermined years of effort against ISIS by the United States and the international community. Despite the elimination of the so-called physical caliphate, ISIS is not defeated. Former Secretary of Defense Mattis correctly warned over the weekend that ISIS will resurge if pressure against the group isn’t sustained. Perhaps even more damaging than the current situation in Syria is the long-term impact of the President’s decision on our standing in the world and our ability to achieve the goals outlined in the national defense strategy of his administration. The President’s shortsighted abandonment of the Kurds is a strategic disaster that raises grave doubts among our allies and our friends about whether the United States under this President can be counted on to defend our shared interests. Given the diverse national security challenges we face, we must attract and rely upon partners who share our interests. Our military leaders often promote the virtues of the ‘‘by, with, and through’’ approach, especially when it comes to counterterrorism. Since 9/11, we have built partnerships with local forces throughout the world—from North and East Africa, to the Middle East, and across the Pacific—to enable efforts against violent extremist groups.
We have sought to apply exquisite capabilities only possessed by the U.S. military to support local partners doing the preponderance of the fighting and dying in service to our shared objective of containing and defeating such violent groups. Contrary to President Trump’s assertions, we are not engaged in an endless war in Syria. In fact, the Kurd’s partnership with the United States should be viewed as a model of how to leverage an ‘‘economy of force’’ commitment of U.S. military capabilities to achieve strategic effects, thereby obviating the need for large numbers of U.S. personnel to be put at risk. In Syria, relatively small numbers of U.S. forces on the ground enabled a Kurdish and Arab ground force of approximately 60,000 personnel known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. With our help, the SDF liberated millions of innocent civilians from the violent oppression of ISIS and defeated the so-called physical caliphate. Some have estimated that the SDF lost more than 10,000 fighters taking on ISIS. It is true that many who joined the SDF did so to liberate their homes from ISIS; however, it is also true that even after their homes were liberated, the SDF—Kurds and Arabs alike—continued to pursue ISIS all the way through the Euphrates River Valley, where the last remnants of the physical caliphate were ultimately defeated earlier this year. Those in the SDF were not only fighting for themselves; they were also fighting for us. They were fighting to help ensure that there were no more ISIS-directed or -inspired attacks like those carried out in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Orlando, and San Bernardino. After the SDF successfully liberated the territory that was formerly controlled by ISIS, it also maintained custody of more than 10,000 ISIS detainees—including more than 2,000 foreign fighters—even when many of their home countries refused to take them back. Given the sacrifices of the SDF in the fight against ISIS, it was particularly insulting for President Trump to imply that the SDF may now be releasing ISIS detainees to get us involved, in his words, in the ongoing violence in northern Syria.
As our military leaders will tell you, our partnership with the SDF was not only built on our shared opposition to ISIS but also on the trust established between our forces in their fighting shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy. They deserved more from the United States and President Trump in the face of demands by Turkey’s autocratic leader. Given all the SDF has sacrificed in furtherance of the fight against ISIS and our partnership, our betrayal of their trust is nothing short of appalling. Again, just days before President Trump’s fateful call with Erdogan, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East publicly stated: ‘‘We, quite frankly, could not carry out our national defense strategy if it weren’t for partners like [the SDF].’’ I fear that the President’s impulsive abandonment of the Kurds has done significant and lasting damage to the standing of the United States in the world and has shaken the confidence of our allies and partners. We are losing valuable partners in a region where the United States has critical national security interests. Congress and the international community must send a clear, bipartisan signal to the President that we do not condone the Turkish incursion into northern Syria or the President’s decision to abandon the Kurds.
President Trump must rescind the invitation to President Erdogan to visit the United States in November. We should not welcome an autocrat who is responsible for endangering our troops on the ground in Syria, the release of dangerous ISIS fighters, the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and violence against noncombatants, which, if reports are true, may amount to war crimes. The United States does not need to stand alone in condemning the violence in northeastern Syria. Our partners in the counter-ISIS coalition share our concerns about the damage the Turkish incursion has caused to our efforts to defeat ISIS and the potential humanitarian costs. The United States should take the lead within the United Nations and NATO to organize efforts to denounce Turkey’s actions and restrain the strategic consequences. We must also redouble diplomatic efforts to seek a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war that is consistent with U.N. Security Council Resolution No. 2254 and that protects the equities of the SDF and civilians who are living under their protection. Unfortunately, the greatest impediment to securing our national security interests in northern Syria and bringing about an end to the conflict there appears to be President Trump’s inability to grasp the strategic significance of his actions. I yield the floor.