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Senators fear Syria damage ‘irreversible’ after Esper, Milley briefing

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee leaving a closed-door briefing on Syria warned Thursday that the damage caused by a U.S. military withdrawal and subsequent Turkish invasion may be “irreversible.”

“I fear this is irreversible,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said. “But the question is, can we prevent the humanitarian catastrophe, can we address the detainees who have escaped and who will be escaping. And that’s the challenge that we have now.”

“It’s a mess,” she added.

Asked if the situation was reversible, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who put the blame on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said he “can’t imagine Erdoğan is going to change what he’s doing.”

The committee received a classified briefing from Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley as Congress grapples with how to respond to President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, paving the way for Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish forces.

The briefing also comes a day after a White House meeting with congressional leaders devolved into chaos, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accusing Trump of having a “meltdown” and Trump tweeting that it was Pelosi who had a “total meltdown.”

The full Senate and House had been scheduled to receive briefings Thursday, but they were nixed Wednesday afternoon before the White House meeting. Esper and Milley are also expected to brief the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution formally opposing Trump’s withdrawal and urging Turkey to stop its military incursion.

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) have introduced a companion version of the resolution in the Senate. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday he wants the upper chamber to take up “something stronger.”

Meanwhile, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) are expected to introduce a sanctions bill later Thursday targeting Turkey’s energy sector and military.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who said he will be one of the co-sponsors of Graham’s sanctions bill, said it would “hopefully push back and reverse the Turkish invasion and the unfolding disaster.”

“To an extent, the egg may be scrambled, but we have an obligation to do whatever we can,” Blumenthal told reporters after the Armed Services briefing. “We are at a moment of reckoning for the United States of America, where we see clear disaster unfolding before us in real time. We have an obligation to act.”

Blumenthal said he thinks there is “very powerful and increasing” support for the bill and urged McConnell to take up the bill “as soon as possible.”

But it’s unclear whether congressional action would spur Erdoğan or Trump to change course and undo the consequences of ISIS prisoners escaping detention in Syria, the Kurds aligning with Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad, and potential future partners viewing the United States as unreliable.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), said the ability to fight ISIS has been “supremely complicated” and that “time will tell” if the damage can be reversed.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), meanwhile, said it “remains to be seen” whether the counter-ISIS mission can be prosecuted without U.S. troops in Syria.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) added that “it’s going to be very difficult” to reverse the damage.

“Erdoğan is going to do what he does, but I think he need to know that there are risks and potential consequences, particularly for ethnic consequence,” King said of whether congressional action will be effective.

“There’s the immediate damage and there’s a danger to the people in that region,” he added. “People are already fleeing, there are refugees. But the longer-term damage is what I’m also concerned about, which is A) how we treat allies and whether we will be able to recruit allies in the future, and B) there’s a geopolitical political issue with Iran, opening up something that they’ve wanted for a long time, which is essentially a land bridge through Syria and Lebanon to endanger Israel.” 

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