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Trump Faces Backlash on Decision to Withdraw from Northern Syria

Carla Babb at the Pentagon, Nike Ching at the State Department, National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin and Extremism Watch reporter Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON / WHITE HOUSE - Key lawmakers of both U.S. major political parties, blindsided by Donald Trump’s announcement to pull American troops from northern Syria, are strongly condemning the president’s decision.

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FILE - President Donald Trump walks towards the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Sept. 26, 2019.

Lindsay Graham, a member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted on Monday that he had spoken with colleague Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, and they will “introduce bipartisan sanctions against Turkey if they invade Syria and will call for their suspension from NATO if they attack Kurdish forces who assisted the U.S. in the destruction of the ISIS Caliphate.”

Graham’s statement came quickly after Trump defended his decision to withdraw the U.S. forces, amid alarm this will put U.S.-allied Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in harm's way and hamper the fight against the Islamic State terror group.

“...It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN,” Trump tweeted on Monday.

“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their ‘neighborhood," he said.

FILE - Sen. Lindsey Graham, speaks to reporters after a briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 21, 2019.

Graham, usually a staunch defender of the president, also terms the move a “disaster in the making. He added U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria "Ensures ISIS comeback. Forces Kurds to align with Assad and Iran. Destroys Turkey’s relationship with U.S. Congress. Will be a stain on America’s honor for abandoning the Kurds."

Fellow Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Foreign Relations Committee member, agrees it is “a grave mistake.”

“It would confirm #Iran’s view of this administration & embolden then to escalate hostile attacks which in turn could trigger much broader & more dangerous regional war,” Rubio tweeted.

The Trump administration announced on Sunday that Turkey “will soon be moving forward” with its plans to carry out an offensive in northern Syria.

“The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial 'Caliphate,' will no longer be in the immediate area,” the White House said, citing a Sunday phone call between Trump and Erdogan.  A small number of forward-deployed U.S. troops in northern Syria have already been pulled back, according to U.S. officials.

But amid widespread criticism Trump appeared Monday to reverse his apparent greenlighting of Turkish military action in northern Syria.

Turkish forces artillery pieces are seen on their new positions near the border with Syria in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces in Syria said American troops began withdrawing Monday from their positions, Oct. 6, 2019.

"As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)," Trump tweeted.

Pentagon and State Department officials have been voicing opposition to any such move by Turkey,

“Any uncoordinated military operation by Turkey would be of grave concern as it would undermine our shared interest of a secure northeast Syria and the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Pentagon spokesperson Commander Sean Robertson told VOA in an email.

FILE - U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon, Aug. 28, 2019.

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of not being named, tells VOA that Defense Secretary Mike Esper was in contact over the weekend with the national security team (including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and the president) to discuss the situation in northern Syria.

"The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey - as did the President - that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria," said Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Hoffman. "The U.S. Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation. "

Trump contends it is too costly to keep supporting U.S. allied Kurdish-led forces who “were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades.”

The SDF says U.S. forces “have withdrawn from border areas with Turkey,” and they accused the United States of not fulfilling its responsibilities under a U.S.-Turkey agreement that involved the Kurdish fighters dismantling some of their defensive capabilities near the border to allay Turkish concerns. 

“As the Syrian Democratic Forces, we are determined to defend our land at all costs,” the group said in a statement. “We call on our Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, and Syriac people to strengthen their unity and stand by the SDF in defense of their land.”

FILE - Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria, July 3, 2017.

Turkey views the People's Protection Units (YPG), the main force within the SDF, as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting for greater rights in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast for decades.

The United States, however, makes a distinction between the PKK and YPG, backing the YPG-dominated SDF in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

The SDF is holding thousands of people in detention camps in northeastern Syria, including many suspected foreign fighters who traveled from Western nations to join Islamic State.

A spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF's political wing, called the Trump administration decision “ill-conceived” and that Islamic State will “become a threat to the whole world,” with the questionable fate of Islamic State fighters in SDF custody becoming a “great danger” for the region.

“The situation over the ISIS detainees who are still organizing themselves while in SDF detention is not clear” according to Amjad Othman, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Council. “We repeatedly called for foreign states to take responsibility for their ISIS nationals. But there was no response”

The White House, in its Sunday statement, said France, Germany and other European nations have refused to take back their nationals and that the United States will not be holding them.

The United States had about 1,000 troops in Syria that have been instrumental in the fight against IS before Trump ordered a gradual withdrawal.

Former special presidential envoy for the anti-Islamic State global coalition, Brett McGurk, says Trump's decision “demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of anything happening on the ground.”