Cornyn: Not a bad idea to get U.S. troops out of the way if Turkey planned to ‘ethnically cleanse the Kurds’
WASHINGTON — Texas Sen. John Cornyn defended the president’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, arguing Wednesday that with Turkey intent on ethnic cleansing of the Kurds — longtime U.S. allies in the fight against the radical Islamic State — the move had merit.
“If Turkey was planning on coming into northern Syria and trying to ethnically cleanse the Kurds, and U.S. troops were caught in the middle, I am not completely convinced that it was a bad idea to get them out of harm’s way,” Cornyn said.
Critics of Trump’s policy have explicitly accused him of standing aside as Turkey attacked and displaced at least 160,000 members of an ethnic group that sacrificed more than 10,000 fighters in seven years of war with ISIS.
Cornyn made his comments during a call with Texas reporters two hours after Trump announced that he was lifting sanctions against Turkey, which has driven Kurds from a 20-mile deep zone along much of its border with Syria.
“Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” Trump said. “Our troops are safe, and the pain and suffering of the three-day fight that occurred was directly responsible for our ability to make an agreement with Turkey and the Kurds that could never have been made without this short-term outburst.”
A senior aide, discussing the Syria policy with reporters after the president’s comments, said that “I don’t think we’ve seen any evidence of ethnic cleansing” but that the U.S. would continue to monitor the Kurds’ situation. “And we would discourage — strongly discourage — any side from forced population removals and ethnic cleansing. That’s just something that doesn’t belong in the 21st century.”
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria “precipitous,” for putting Kurds at risk and inviting a resurgence of the ISIS caliphate.
He expressed more dismay after Trump’s announcement Wednesday lifting the threat of sanctions on Turkey.
“Turkey’s incursion is totally unacceptable,” Cruz said. “This invasion endangered our Kurdish partners and unfortunately now risks a resurgence of ISIS. The United States should stand by our Kurdish allies, who have a long history of standing with America against our enemies, and try to stop the chaos that ISIS fighters are taking advantage of by escaping prison.”
Cruz and Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have loudly denounced the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.
Last Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly approved a resolution disapproving of the move. The vote was 354-60. McCaul co-authored the measure with the committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York.
“The abrupt withdrawal of United States military personnel from certain parts of Northeast Syria is beneficial to adversaries of the United States government, including Syria, Iran, and Russia,” the resolution says.
Last Thursday, Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney blasted Trump for abandoning the Kurds, denouncing the abandonment of an ally as “a bloodstain in the annals of American history.”
The United States has a mixed record of intervening in episodes of ethnic cleansing, which refers to the forcible removal of civilians of a particular ethnic group.
In the 1990s, fighting in the former Yugoslavia led to war crimes tribunals. In 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in Rwanda murdered up to 800,000 people, mostly members of the Tutsi minority, during a 100-day genocidal spree.
“As if clearing the way for a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Syrian Kurds wasn’t enough, President Trump seems determined to keep handing political and military victories to Russia and Syria, kowtowing to Turkey, and opening the door for further Iranian expansion in the region,” said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The murderous Syrian regime and the Russian security forces continue to rejoice over their control of almost all remaining autonomous Kurdish territory, in some cases literally standing in abandoned American military posts,” he said. “The only question remaining is whether President Trump is acting directly at the behest of Russian and Turkish leaders, or whether he is willfully blind to his own failures.”
David Petraeus, former CIA director and former commander of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East, was asked Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union if he thought the U.S. was sanctioning ethnic cleansing of the Kurds.
“Well, it certainly is ethnic displacement. And, arguably, it may turn out to be ethnic cleansing,” he said.
He added that Turkey has “legitimate security concerns” about Syrian Kurds who have worked both with the United States in the fight against ISIS and with Turkish Kurd terrorists.
A buffer zone the United States established and patrolled was useful in keeping the adversaries apart, though not to Turkey’s satisfaction. It’s now controlled by Turkey and Russia.
“It took 10,000 Syrian Kurd losses, years of effort by our Special Forces. … And then, in a single period of a couple of days, we are abandoning all of that on the battlefield,” Petraeus said.
Cornyn readily agreed that the U.S. withdrawal may have been ill-conceived and hasty.
“They have been fighting alongside of Americans and others to try to contain ISIS. So I have many concerns, but perhaps the overarching concern is [that] President Obama did not have a strategy, and President Trump didn’t inherit one, nor did he come up with a comprehensive strategy,” Cornyn said. “I wish that there had been more consultation with Congress and others and our allies in the region.”
Asked if he was satisfied with Trump’s latest moves, lifting sanctions on Turkey and declaring victory after last week’s withdrawal, Cornyn was cautious: “This thing changes pretty quickly, and we need for this to play out a little bit to have some clarity.”
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