Sen. Van Hollen: Upholding American leadership when President Trump won't

Trump’s willingness to surrender to Turkey’s wishes has understandably shaken the trust of our allies throughout the region and the world.

KURDS IN Syria flee the Turkish and Syrian rebel offensive against their formerly peaceful towns last month (photo credit: REUTERS)
KURDS IN Syria flee the Turkish and Syrian rebel offensive against their formerly peaceful towns last month
(photo credit: REUTERS)
American leadership in the Middle East is at grave risk. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw US forces from northeastern Syria and green-light Turkey’s attack on our Syrian Kurdish allies has undermined our credibility and shaken our relationships with key regional allies, such as Israel and Jordan.
This betrayal has far-reaching consequences for the entire region and threatens to dangerously erode trust in American promises. Without decisive congressional action, I fear that the negative impact on the global fight against ISIS and American national security interests will be felt for years to come.
Let me be clear: I am opposed to senseless military intervention and to sustained aimless deployment of American forces in the Middle East. I was among those who strongly objected to the 2003 Iraq War. But this is not such a situation. Our military presence in Syria has been modest, essential to the fight against ISIS, and key allies depended on US support. Our global credibility is on the line.
Since 2015, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been the US-backed foot soldiers who successfully rid nearly one-third of Syria from ISIS control at the high cost of over 11,000 lives of their own. The decision to abandon them now will be remembered as one of the most egregious examples of betrayal of American values and interests that we have ever seen.
In just a few short weeks, this decision has led to the displacement of nearly 200,000 civilians, the deaths of hundreds, the release of ISIS prisoners, and the return of radical jihadist fighters to what had recently been one of the most stable areas of war-torn Syria.
Trump’s willingness to surrender to Turkey’s wishes has understandably shaken the trust of our allies throughout the region and the world. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s territorial ambitions in northern Syria have long been clear, and the Trump administration had plenty of time to formulate its response.
In recent years, Turkey’s “Operation Euphrates” and then “Operation Olive Branch” – west of the Euphrates River and enabled by Russia – changed the ethnic composition and control of Syria’s northwest border area. The SDF was forced to abandon traditionally ethnic Kurdish areas like Afrin, leaving citizens under the brutal occupation of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters.
The lessons are clear. We should have no illusions about the implications of the latest extension of Turkish control of Syrian territory, including the revival of ISIS and the spread of extremist jihadi elements among Turkey’s proxy forces. Erdogan was not part of the US coalition against ISIS and ignored both the transit through Turkey of thousands of jihadists into Syria and the trucks carrying oil that financed the caliphate’s operations.
Russia, Iran and Bashar Assad are the other direct beneficiaries of recent events. Without US support, the SDF has been forced to enter into an agreement with Assad to try to protect its remaining territories along the border. Assad’s goal to control all of territorial Syria is now nearly within reach. With the end of SDF control of one-third of Syria, an obstacle standing between Iran’s desire for a clear land route to resupply Hezbollah has been removed. Russia has also achieved its objective to be the main foreign power broker in Syria – a development with implications for America’s allies in Iraq and elsewhere.
IN THE face of these events, it is critical that Congress assert US leadership where President Trump will not and fill the void to ensure that our allies know America is not going to retreat from its role in the world.
The bipartisan legislation I introduced together with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sanctions Turkey and sends a clear message that Congress is ready to stand up for American values in the world.
These sanctions would be immediate and severe, and would make it clear that Ankara must end its slaughter of the Syrian Kurds. This Senate legislation now has 14 bipartisan cosponsors. And this week, the US House of Representatives overwhelming passed similar legislation to sanction Turkey by a vote of 403-16. In both chambers and in both political parties, there is a strong desire to push back against the Trump administration and fulfill our commitment to the Syrian Kurds and others allies in the region.
Time is of the essence. We know from reports that Turkey and its proxies are now attacking Kurds outside the designated “safe zone” – a gross violation of the agreement reached with Vice President Mike Pence that should trigger administration sanctions but haven’t. Each day that passes, the fighting area is expanding, our allies are being slaughtered, refugees are fleeing into Iraq, and the region is more unstable. Both America and Israel are less secure. The Senate must immediately pass bipartisan sanctions legislation and, if necessary, override a presidential veto.
The writer is a US senator (D-Maryland).