In an impassioned speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, blasted President Trump’s decision to pull troops from defensive positions in Syria, and brought up the possibility that “Turkey may have called America’s bluff” in an exchange between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey?” Romney said. “I believe that it’s imperative that public hearings are held to answer these questions, and I hope the Senate is able to conduct those hearings next week.”
The transcript of the Oct. 6 phone call between Trump and Erdogan has not been made public. Shortly afterward, Trump, without notifying his national security staff or State Department, unilaterally ordered the small American contingent in northern Syria to abandon their positions, and Turkey began its assault three days later.
Romney said redeploying the troops that protected Kurdish allies from the Turkish military left “a bloodstain” on American history.
“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,” Romney said. “It’s 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.”
A day earlier, Trump fought off criticism of his decision to clear the way for Turkish forces to enter northern Syria and battle Kurdish forces stationed there, calling the move “strategically brilliant.”
“I’m not going to get involved in a war between Turkey and Syria, especially when, if you look at the Kurds, and again I say this with great respect, they’re no angels,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday as his own vice president and secretary of state headed to Turkey to try to persuade Erdogan to halt his military offensive.
Perhaps the most outspoken Republican critic of the president, Romney saw Trump’s erratic foreign policy moves as antithetical to American values and a boon to U.S. foes.
“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 bloodstain in the annals of American history,” Romney said. “There are broad strategic implications of our decision as well. Iranian and Russian interests in the Middle East have been advanced as well. 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 aligned with Assad. So America is diminished; Russia, Iran and Assad are strengthened.”
Earlier in the day, Vice President Mike Pence announced that Erdogan had agreed to a five-day “ceasefire” with the Kurds on terms favorable to Turkey, and Trump celebrated that news as he departed for a campaign rally in Dallas.
“This is an amazing outcome. This is an outcome, regardless of how the press would like to damp it down, this was something that they’ve been trying to get for 10 years,” Trump said. “You would have lost millions and millions of lives. They couldn’t get it without a little rough love, as I called it.”
Before Pence announced the short-term ceasefire that would spare Turkey from further U.S. sanctions, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced a bill that would increase sanctions on Erdogan’s government well beyond those the Trump administration put in place this week.
“Mr. President, as much as I like you and want to work with you, I am going to be consistent and I will hold you accountable," Graham said.
On Wednesday, two-thirds of Republican House members voted in favor of a resolution that rebuked Trump over his handling of the Kurdish situation. But on Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blocked a vote on the same nonbinding resolution in the Senate.
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