‘Shock’ in Washington as Trump defends withdrawal from Syria

“It’s a terrible thing for our nation, a terrible thing for our allies that we’ve been working with. It’s a terrible thing for the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces],” said Republican Senator Bob Corker, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Thursday 20/12/2018
US President Donald Trump: American troops “are all coming back, and they’re coming back now.” (AP)
Assailed move. US President Donald Trump: American troops “are all coming back, and they’re coming back now.” (AP)

WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump has sought to defend his surprise decision to withdraw US troops from Syria amid near-universal criticism from officials, including members of his own Republican Party who hold influential positions in the US Congress.

In a video December 20th morning, Trump repeated his declaration of victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) and said US troops “are all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”

“We have won against ISIS. We’ve beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land, and now it’s time for our troops to come back home,” Trump says in the video, filmed in front of the White House.

Trump’s statement came as Republican leaders in Congress denounced the troop withdrawal, which was announced abruptly on December 19, saying it would damage the United States’ reputation around the world.

“This is a stain on the honour of the United States,” Senator Lindsey Graham said on the Senate floor. Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and close ally of Trump, joined five other senators in writing Trump a letter saying troop withdrawal is a “premature and costly mistake that not only threatens the safety and security of the United States, but also emboldens ISIS, [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia.”

The letter, signed by four Republicans, a Democrat and an independent, urges Trump to reconsider his decision “to ensure that our nation’s strategic interests are secured.”

Another influential Republican, Senator Bob Corker, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that everyone in Congress and in the Trump administration was stunned.

“My sense is that it’s been a shock throughout the administration that this type of decision was made,” Corker said. “It’s a terrible thing for our nation, a terrible thing for our allies that we’ve been working with. It’s a terrible thing for the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces].”

Representative Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, disputed Trump’s assertion that ISIS was defeated. “Though ISIS is on the run, it’s not yet defeated,” Royce, from California, said. US forces are “critical to rooting out these terrorists and stopping Iran from moving fighters and missiles to Israel’s doorstep.”

In an unusual move, the criticism was joined by Mike Huckabee, a prominent conservative commentator and former presidential candidate who is the father of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Leaving Syria abruptly is betrayal to Kurds who have sacrificed and shed blood for Americans and it leaves Syrian Christians as sitting ducks,” Mike Huckabee wrote on Twitter hours after his daughter announced that US troops would be leaving Syria.

Despite the widespread criticism from Congress, US lawmakers cannot reverse the decision by Trump, who is commander-in-chief of the US military and has unilateral authority to remove troops from combat areas.

Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat who will become the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s chairman in two weeks, said Trump should consult with Congress about his decision to withdraw the estimated 2,000 US troops from north-eastern Syria.

Trump wrote on Twitter December 20 that his decision “was no surprise” and noted that he had advocated for US troop withdrawal since he has been running for president in 2016. “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work,” Trump wrote, misspelling the word “their.” He added, “Time to come home & rebuild.”

Trump cast his decision as part of a broader policy in which he has sought to have other countries take greater responsibility for global security. He wrote on Twitter: “Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight. …”

Trump was alone in defending his decision to pull US troops as the rest of his administration avoided public statements and appearances.

At the State Department, the press office cancelled a previously scheduled briefing for December 19 after Trump’s announcement. The State Department made no public statement, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ignored journalists’ questions when he made a brief public appearance.

The Defence Department also made no statement beyond Twitter messages posted December 19 confirming the troop withdrawal.

Trump’s decision was widely seen as a rebuke to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who had publicly warned that ISIS remained a threat to the US and the Middle East.

Corker, the senator, said that he had spoken to Mattis and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, after the announcement. “I know there are significant concerns about what has happened,” Corker said. “I’ve never seen a decision like this since I’ve been here 12 years, where nothing is communicated in advance and all of a sudden this type of massive decision takes place. It’s caught everybody off guard.”