WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump declared a “big success” in Syria on Wednesday and said he would lift sanctions on Turkey over its invasion of that country – even as as Russia gained a foothold in the Middle East and members of Congress expressed growing concerns about Trump’s policy.
While critics quickly ridiculed Trump’s claim of a victory, the president said a cease-fire had held “beyond most expectations” and Turkey has vowed to stop combat actions.
So sanctions on Turkey will be lifted “unless something happens that we’re not happy with,” Trump said in remarks at the White House.
The president has come under withering criticism for withdrawing U.S. forces from northeastern Syria, paving the way for a deadly Turkish attack on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces.
“The only ‘big success’ is that Russia is now the dominant power in Syria and Vladimir Putin is the major-domo of Middle East power politics,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington-based foreign policy research institute.
A U.S.-brokered cease-fire that suspended fighting between Turkish forces and the Kurds expired on Tuesday.
In an earlier tweet announcing that he would be making a statement, Trump said that cease-fire has held and “combat missions have ended.” Vice President Mike Pence, who was originally scheduled to travel to Michigan Wednesday morning, joined Trump for his remarks in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House.
But the situation in Syria remains in flux. On the ground, Russia has moved to fill a power vacuum created by the U.S. departure, the Kurds fear an ethnic cleansing by Turkish forces and ISIS fighters are vying for a comeback amid the chaos.
On Tuesday, Russia and Turkey agreed to take joint control of a vital strip of territory along the Syria-Turkey border, a victory for Moscow as the U.S. military continued its withdrawal from Syria. Russian military police crossed the Euphrates River and entered northern Syria on Wednesday morning, according to Kremlin-controlled state media.
“A Russian-dominated Middle East with the Iranian, Turks, Assad and Hezbollah in the sidecar will be quite a ride,” said Dubowitz. “Buckle up.”
Meanwhile, Turkey’s assault, even while suspended, has spawned a humanitarian crisis in Syria. The United Nations estimated Tuesday that about 180,000 Syrians have been forced to leave their homes or shelters, including 80,000 children, all in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
And the pact between Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gives Moscow a crucial foothold in the Middle East amid a power vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal. Under the agreement, Russia and Turkey agreed to work together to remove Kurdish fighters from a 20-mile zone in northern Syria.
“It is clear that the United States has been sidelined,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Tuesday during a hearing on Trump’s actions in Syria.
During that hearing, Jeffrey, faced a barrage of pointed questions from senators in both parties on the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria, which many have said was a betrayal of the Kurdish fighters who helped America defeat the Islamic State’s caliphate in the country.
Menendez said Trump’s decision to withdraw troops in the face of a threatened Turkish assault was a “capitulation” that greenlighted Erdogan’s plans. “We don’t even have clarity about whether and where U.S. troops might remain.”
Jeffrey will face a second day of interrogation Wednesday from House lawmakers in both parties unsettled and infuriated by Trump’s conflicting decisions on Syria.
Trump’s moves in Syria have alienated even his staunchest GOP allies, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.
Tuesday’s agreement between Russia and Turkey has only exacerbated concerns on Capitol Hill.
James Jeffrey questioning: ‘It’s clear the US has been sidelined.’ Turkey and Russia agree to joint patrols in Syria
On Wednesday, Jeffrey will face the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.
Until two weeks ago, Kurdish forces controlled much of northeastern Syria. After an Oct. 6 phone call between Trump and Erdogan, Turkey invaded Syria and began pushing the Kurds south. Under the U.S.-brokered cease-fire, the Kurdish fighters agreed to pull back deeper into Syria, and Turkey agreed to stop its assault.
If the terms of the cease-fire are ratified by all sides, Trump will lift sanctions he imposed on Turkey earlier this month and Turkey will not advance further into Syria.
Jeffrey defended the cease-fire on Tuesday, saying it has limited Turkey’s territorial gains in Syria – and the chaos that unleashed. But he conceded that hundreds of Kurdish fighters have died in the two-week-long incursion and that ISIS fighters have taken advantage of the mayhem.
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