US Republicans join Democrats to blast Trump's Syria withdrawal

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (L) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the top lawmakers in the US House of Representatives and Senate on Monday condemned President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria, which could open the way for a Turkish strike on Kurdish-led fighters in the area. Some threatened to introduce a resolution calling for Trump to reverse the move or legislation imposing sanctions on Turkey if it attacked Kurdish forces.

Kurdish soldiers have helped the United States fight the Islamic State militant group, but the Turkish military has branded them terrorists.

“This decision poses a dire threat to regional security and stability, and sends a dangerous message to Iran and Russia, as well as our allies, that the United States is no longer a trusted partner,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said in a statement calling on Trump to “reverse this dangerous decision.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement: “A precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup.”

McConnell was referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. McConnell also noted in his statement that most of the Senate voted in January for an amendment expressing bipartisan concern about the continuing threat posed by Islamic militant groups in Syria and support for a continued military presence. “The conditions that produced that bipartisan vote still exist today,” he said.

The United States on Monday began pulling troops back from northeastern Syria’s border, effectively giving Turkey a green light to move into the area, after Trump’s surprise announcement on Sunday that he was withdrawing US forces.

A feared Turkish invasion of northeast Syria could spark a resurgence of the Islamic State group, analysts and Kurdish forces have warned, despite Ankara's pledge to prevent the jihadists' return.

While a Kurdish-led operation earlier this year saw the death of IS's territorial caliphate, the organisation isn't dead and sleeper cells have been active in SDF-held areas and in Syria's vast desert where they continue to hit regime forces with deadly attacks and ambushes. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is the Kurdish militia that controls much of northeastern Syria.

Charles Lister, director of the US-based Middle East Institute, said US President Donald Trump was "granting IS the gift of rebirth". The US military itself has warned that, short of sustained international pressure, IS would soon have the ability to regroup.

"The battle against IS is not over," Abdulkarim Omar, the top Kurdish foreign affairs official, told AFP Monday. "There are hundreds of sleeper cells in recently liberated areas," he said.

The Kurds consistently warned that they would be unable to guard IS fighters if their forces were busy fighting off a Turkish offensive.

Many Congress members from both parties quickly condemned the move, a departure from the deep partisan divide that has opened at the US Capitol, worsened by House Democrats’ decision to open an impeachment investigation of the Republican president.

On Monday, several Republicans better known for their strong backing of Trump also expressed outrage over the decision. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called the situation “a disaster in the making” that showed the United States is an unreliable ally.

Graham said he would introduce a Senate resolution opposing the plan and asking for a reversal. He also said he and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen planned to introduce bipartisan sanctions against Turkey if it invades Syria and will call for their suspension from NATO if they attack Kurdish forces.

Later on Monday, however, Trump threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy if it took its planned military strike too far.

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