Senate Republicans Break From Trump on Syria Hours Before the State of the Union

February 5, 2019, 10:53 PM UTC

The Republican-controlled Senate voted to require President Donald Trump to impose new sanctions on Syria, in a rebuke delivered just hours before the president is expected to defend his policies during his State of the Union address.

The 77-23 vote Tuesday, a rare break with the president, was prompted by Senate Republicans’ strong disapproval of Trump’s announcement in December that he was declaring victory against Islamic State in Syria and withdrawing U.S. forces from the country.

The legislation directs the administration to impose sanctions on entities doing business with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It also includes an amendment sponsored by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that urges Trump not to exit military conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.

McConnell stood by Trump during the 35-day partial government shutdown in a dispute over border security, and he is usually reluctant to criticize the president. But he has repeatedly warned that Islamic State and al-Qaeda have not been defeated. His amendment calls for the U.S. to avoid any “precipitous withdrawal” from Syria and Afghanistan.

The measure, S. 1, also includes aid for Israel as well as a provision that would let state and local governments refuse to do business with anyone who boycotts that nation.

The president defended his moves in a series of tweets and interviews ahead of his speech.

“It is now time to start coming home and, after many years, spending our money wisely,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Certain people must get smart!”

General Joseph L. Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told senators Tuesday that Trump did not consult him before making his announcement that he planned to bring U.S. troops home from Syria “now.”

A number of lawmakers, including Republicans, opposed the president’s decision. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned shortly after Trump’s announcement, followed soon after by Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the global coalition fighting Islamic State.

A report by the inspectors general of the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, issued Monday, said Islamic State “remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that ‘could likely resurge in Syria’ absent continued counterterrorism pressure.”

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, introduced a stand-alone Syria sanctions bill in his chamber that passed by voice vote last month.