The Trump Administration’s Syria Policy: Perspectives from the Field
Submitted Statement for the Record of
Fellow, National Security and Cybersecurity
Specialist, Government Affairs
House Subcommittee on National Security
Oversight and Government Reform Committee
The Trump Administration’s Syria Policy:
Perspectives from the Field
October 23, 2019
Chairman Lynch, Ranking Member Hice and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for holding this important hearing on the Trump administration’s Syria policy. This statement is offered by scholars from the R Street Institute’s Governance and National Security and Cybersecurity teams who have studied national security and government oversight extensively. The R Street Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization whose mission is to engage in research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government.
Understanding that the Subcommittee will be hearing from experts with on-the-ground experience in Syria, we won’t echo the same points we believe they will make. Instead, we hope to offer a different perspective focused on far-reaching security implications and Congress’ increasingly important oversight role.
Introduction to the Issue
Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan informed President Trump that Turkey was planning to invade Syria. The goal of the invasion, according to Erdogan, was to create a 20-mile “safe zone” in Syria along the Turkish border to resettle many of the approximately 3 million Syrian refugees who fled the violence of the Syrian Civil War. To achieve this, Turkish forces would launch a military attack against U.S.-allied Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in Syria. In response to Erdogan’s announcement, President Trump announced a withdrawal of American troops from Syria, abandoning the Kurdish fighters with whom the United States had been allied. The decision, which blindsided both Kurdish fighters and Pentagon and State Department officials, was widely condemned by Congressional leaders from both parties.
The influx of Syrian refugees in Turkey has led to recent domestic tension for the country, no doubt spurring Erdogan’s decision to attack U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters. At the root of this unacceptable behavior is Turkey’s longstanding conflict with the Kurds. Although Kurds comprise significant minorities in Iran, Iraq and Syria, approximately half of the Kurdish diaspora lives in Turkey. Turkey has consistently seen the Kurds as a threat and sought to suppress any expression of Kurdish culture. From 1980 to 1991, for example, it was illegal in Turkey to speak Kurdish languages out of fears of Kurdish nationalism.
Today, Kurdish politicians in Turkey are frequently harassed or imprisoned by the Turkish government. Kurdish separatists have been engaged in intermittent conflict against Turkey’s military since the creation of the modern state of Turkey in 1923. Since 1984, members of Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) have constituted the majority of Kurdish separatists in Turkey, and the PKK has been designated a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union. Turkey’s conflict with the PKK has also led the country to condemn its NATO partners for allying with Kurdish forces in Syria. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) is a predominantly Kurdish component of the SDF. The SDF has worked closely with the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. Turkey considers the YPG to be an extension of the PKK and has labeled the group a terrorist organization, although the YPG and PKK claim they are separate organizations.
Although Turkey and the United States are NATO allies, Turkey has repeatedly opposed American support for the SDF. In both 2016 and 2018, joint operations by Turkish troops and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TSFA) tried to keep YPG forces from the Syrian district of Afrin.
Security Implications of the Trump Administration’s Decision in Syria
There is no doubt the Trump administration’s withdrawal from Syria will have a major impact on the global foreign policy arena. Most obvious is the ongoing military invasion of Syria by Turkish forces.
It is worth noting that some experts consider it likely that American forces would simply have to be present to prevent Turkish forces from advancing. It is unlikely that Turkish forces would have engaged with their American counterparts, so their mere presence could have continued to prevent an escalation of conflict.
The offensive, which began when the Turkish air force launched airstrikes on Oct. 9, has already displaced over 130,000 people and led to the deaths of numerous Syrian civilians. The chaos has also led to the escape of ISIS prisoners from Kurdish prisons. According to multiple reports, 785 ISIS supporters escaped a detention camp in Ein Eissa after attacking the prison guards following a Turkish artillery attack. While senior U.S. defense officials indicated they believe ISIS prisoners were being released by Syrian and Turkish forces, President Trump gave credence to Turkey’s accusation that the Kurds were releasing prisoners on their own when he tweeted, “Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved.” The withdrawal has also led to the destruction of several former American military bases, which U.S. forces destroyed to prevent resources from falling into Turkish hands.
Even more alarming are the potential long-term effects of President Trump’s decision on America’s relationship with its allies. The United States’ withdrawal has led to a sudden re-balancing of power in Syria that could have global impacts. On Oct. 13, as a result of American abandonment, Kurdish forces signed an agreement with Assad’s government in Damascus, which is hostile to the United States and on friendly terms with Russia, to help repel the Turkish invasion. As a result, the United States has lost an important tool for curbing Russian influence in the Middle East.
The removal of American troops in Syria is exactly the type of void American adversaries like Russia are looking to fill in the world. Russia opposed the United States in Syria, backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Yet due to the withdrawal of American troops, Russian forces now patrol the former U.S. base in Manbij. Furthermore, President Trump’s willingness to abruptly abandon American alliances has led officials in other countries to doubt the benefits of being allied with the United States.
With Russia proving its desire to undermine America’s global presence and even domestic institutions—shown by its meddling in our 2016 elections—American policymakers should be wary of taking a cavalier attitude towards security alliances and allies it will no doubt need in the future.
Consider the following scenarios:
- This past May, Turkey became a regional base for the Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei. In the future, Turkey (a NATO ally privy to classified information involving security matters of the alliance’s 29 members) could decide to use Huawei exclusively for all government communications. The United States, in an attempt to either encourage Huawei to change certain policies (namely its alleged espionage and data sharing practices) or pressure Turkey to restrict the provider, might request assistance from regional allies in this regard. If the United States continues a pattern of inconsistency and untrustworthiness in foreign commitments, these allies may be less willing to partner with us due to their fear of our tendency to hastily switch course, leaving the controversial Chinese company free to potentially access and share proprietary security information.
- The Kurds, in the wake of U.S. withdrawal, have shown a willingness to ally with parties hostile to the United States, including the al-Assad regime. In the future, consider an ISIS plot to conduct a cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure, which many experts believe they may be capable of doing. Without access to actionable intelligence from our former Kurdish allies and an ability to disrupt ISIS cyber operations in the future, the United States might not have warning to prevent or respond to such an attack in advance.
These are only two of the many scenarios that demonstrate the United States’ need for allies in the Middle East. Be it access to intelligence, physical bases and ports, or even rhetorical support and soft pressure, the United States needs strategic allies in the Middle East. Haphazard foreign policy that disregards the need for U.S. alliances is not just irresponsible, it is dangerous.
Congress Has an Important Role to Play
This testimony highlights many of the concerns and national security implications of President Trump’s recent announcement of troop withdrawal in northern Syria. We applaud Congress’ bipartisan resolve to scrutinize the president’s recent foreign policy decisions, including seeking answers about how these decisions were made, the ongoing fallout of the president’s pronouncements and how Congress can appropriately respond. Hearings, such as the one today, are an important first step.
Certainly, President Trump has significant authority to conduct foreign relations under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Article II vests “the executive power” in the president. It also designates the president as “commander in chief” of the U.S. armed forces and gives him the authority to make treaties and appoint and ambassadors. The Supreme Court has also recognized the advantage of the nation speaking with “one voice” outside our borders. There are pragmatic advantages to the president’s substantial role in foreign affairs. The Executive Branch is hierarchical, with the president overseeing a massive military, intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracy. Its size and operation vastly outweigh any other branch of government.
Nevertheless, the president “is not free from the ordinary controls and checks of Congress merely because foreign affairs are at issue.” Indeed, the Constitution gives Congress numerous foreign affairs powers. The president has the power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors only with the “advice and consent of the Senate.” And Article I provides Congress other specific duties, including control over appropriations. Specifically, the Constitution tasks Congress to “provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” “regulate commerce with foreign nations,” “declare war” and “raise and support Armies,” “provide and maintain a Navy,” and “make Rules for the Government and Regulations of the land and naval Forces,” among many other duties. To fulfill these and other legislative responsibilities, congressional oversight over the Executive Branch is an implicit constitutional obligation.
This background illuminates why Congress should continue to use its oversight role to learn more about the ramifications of the president’s vision for Syria and the region. As emphasized by members from both sides of the aisle, serious questions remain about President Trump’s intent. Congress is right to seek to know more about how President Trump reached this decision and his rationale. It is also appropriate for Congress to have the Executive Branch explain why its policy shifted so dramatically without consultation with relevant committees or congressional leadership. Finally, Congress should demand answers from the Executive on what it intends to do to help mitigate the ongoing humanitarian crises in the region.
Congress is taking a step in the right direction. Just this week, Congress will hold four hearings in multiple committees on the United States’ Syria policy and its consequences. Once facts are gathered, Congress should consider next steps, including what legislative powers can be used for Congress to reassert its role in foreign relations and what can be done to curb the potential dangers of such hastily made foreign policy.
Again, we will certainly not speak in the place of the military and foreign policy strategic experts, but instead focus our recommendations on what Congress can do to curb the threat of dangerous (and unilaterally decided) foreign policy.
To begin, we encourage greater oversight and continued public pressure from Congress on foreign policy issues. Hearings such as today’s are an excellent start. Congress should not leave foreign policy matters solely to the Executive. Further engagement in foreign affairs by a wide array of elected officials is important to a well-rounded foreign strategy. Congressional delegations (CODELs) visiting overseas locations, for example, are excellent methods by which to offer a hands-on perspective to Congress and clearly demonstrate to others that it too has a significant role in foreign affairs.
Furthermore, we are concerned about the Trump administration’s seemingly hasty decisions to withdraw from long-held international commitments. If left unchecked by Congress, these decisions could have a detrimental impact on national security, and the United States may soon find itself with fewer friends in the international community and less of an ability to influence global affairs.
Congress has the ability to counteract these negative effects through oversight, legislative action and continued engagement in foreign policy matters. We strongly encourage they do so.
We would like to thank the Committee for its attention to the matters presented above. If our colleagues at the R Street Institute or we can be of any assistance to members of the Committee, please feel free to contact us.
Fellow, National Security and Cybersecurity
Government Affairs Specialist