In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator Mitt Romney, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, spoke on the Administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria and the temporary ceasefire with Turkey.
Mr. President, I rise today to address the current situation in Syria.
First, I welcome the Vice President’s announcement of a ceasefire, which will prevent further loss of life. I hope the agreement is honored. But at the heart of this matter is a central question of why these terms and assurances were not negotiated before the President consented to withdraw our troops.
Let me briefly recount what’s happened in the past seven days since the U.S. announced our withdrawal. The Kurds, suffering loss of life and property, have allied with Assad. Russia has assumed control of our previous military positions, and the U.S. has been forced in many cases to bomb some of our own facilities to prevent their appropriation by Russia and Turkey.
The announcement today is being portrayed as a victory. It is far from a victory. Serious questions remain about how the decision was reached to precipitously withdraw from Syria, and why that decision was reached. Given the initial details of the ceasefire agreement, the Administration must also explain what America’s future role will be in the region, what happens now to the Kurds, and why Turkey will face no apparent consequences.
Further, the ceasefire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally. Adding insult to dishonor, the Administration speaks cavalierly, even flippantly—even as our ally has suffered death and casualty, their homes have been burned, and their families have been torn apart.
We know the truth about our Kurd allies. They lost 11,000 combatants in our joint effort to defeat ISIS. We dropped bombs from the air and provided intelligence and logistics behind the lines. The Kurds lost thousands of lives. Eighty-six brave Americans also lost their lives so tragically.
It is argued that the Kurds were fighting for themselves. Of course they were. That’s the nature of an alliance. We fight together, each pursuing our own vital interest. America leaves no soldiers behind. Often at great cost in blood and treasure, we recover our dead and wounded, and we free our men and women who are held captive. This is a matter of American honor and promise.
So, too, is the principle that we stand by our allies, that we do not abandon our friends. The decision to abandon the Kurds violates one of our most sacred duties. It strikes at American honor.
What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a blood stain in the annals of American history.
There are broad strategic implications of our decision as well. Iranian and Russian interests in the Middle East have been advanced by our decision. At a time when we are applying maximum pressure on Iran, by giving them a stronger hand in Syria, we have actually weakened that pressure. Russia’s objective to play a greater role in the Middle East has also been greatly enhanced. The Kurds out of desperation have now aligned with Assad. So America is diminished. Russia, Iran, and Assad are strengthened. And so I ask how and why this decision was reached?
I serve on the Foreign Relations Committee and given the Syria decision taken by the Administration, I might be forgiven for wondering why our committee even exists. I say this because apparently, the decision to leave Syria was made without consultation with the committee or even with the committee chairman and ranking member.
Just three weeks ago, our subcommittee held hearings to receive an extensive analysis of the conditions and the way forward in Syria. It was presented to us by the Syria Study Group, a bipartisan congressionally-mandated commission tasked with providing an in-depth assessment of the conditions in Syria and to provide recommendations for American strategy going forward.
So far as I am aware, the Administration made no effort to contact those who attended that hearing or to speak with the Syria Study Group to be able to understand the content in their extensive published report. I ask whether it is the position of the Administration that the United States Senate, a body of 100 people representing both political parties, is to be entirely absent from decisions of the magnitude just taken in Syria?
Now some argue that we should not have been in Syria in the first place because there was not a vote taken by the Senate to engage in war there. I disagree. Congress has given the President legal authority and funding to fight against terrorists in Syria. However, even if one for purposes of argument believed that no authorization had been given, that is really irrelevant to the decision as to the withdrawal once we have allied with a people, the Kurds, committed to defend them, and together defeated ISIS. Once you jump in the ocean to save a drowning soul, you don’t turn around with the excuse that you didn’t have to jump in in the first place. It is a matter of commitment.
Others argue that we should just get out of a messy situation like this. The Middle East, they say, has had wars going on forever, just let them have at it. There’s of course a certain logic to this position as well, but again it applies only to the original decision as to whether or not we should have gone into Syria. Once we have engaged, and made the commitments we made, honor as well as self-interest demand that we not abandon our allies.
It has been suggested that Turkey may have called America’s bluff, telling the President that they were coming no matter what we did. If that is so, we should know it, for it would tell us a great deal about how we should deal with Turkey now and in the future.
Some have argued that Syria is simply a mess, with warring groups and sub groups, friends and allies shifting from one side to the other, and thus we had to exit because there was no reasonable path for us to go forward. Are we incapable of understanding and shaping complex situations? Russia seems to have figured it out. Are we less adept than they? And are our principles to be jettisoned when we find things get messy?
The Administration claims that none of these reasons are accurate. Instead, the President has said that we left to fulfill a commitment to stop endless wars, to bring troops home, to get them out of harm’s way, perhaps to save money. I find these reasons hard to square. Why? Well, we withdrew 1,500 troops in Syria but we are adding 2,000 troops in Saudi Arabia. And all totaled, we have some 60,000 troops in the Middle East.
Assuming for the sake of understanding that getting out of endless wars was the logic for the decision, why would we take action so precipitously? Why would we not warn our ally, the Kurds of what we were about to do? Why would we not give them time to also withdraw or perhaps to dig in to defend themselves? Clearly, the Turks had a heads up because they were able to start bombing within in mere hours.
I simply do not understand why the Administration did not explain in advance to Erdogan that it is unacceptable for Turkey to attack an American ally. Could we not insist that together we develop a transition plan that protects the Kurds, secures the ISIS prisoners, and meets the legitimate concerns of Turkey as well? Was there no chance for diplomacy? Are we so weak, and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey?
I believe that it is imperative that public hearings are held to answer these question, and I hope the Senate is able to conduct those hearings next week. I note in closing that I also hope the ceasefire agreement is honored and that Turkey ends its brutal killing. But I note that lives are already lost and American honor has already been tarnished.
We once abandoned a red line. Now, we abandoned an ally.
Mr. President, we need answers. What has happened in Syria should not happen again and we, the Senate, must take action to make sure that it does not.