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Why Republicans Are Willing to Go Against Trump on Syria

October 11, 2019, 3:30 PM UTC

President Donald Trump decided unexpectedly and unilaterally this week to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, sparking outrage from Congress—on both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced the bipartisan Graham-Van Hollen Turkey Sanctions Bill Wednesday to levy sanctions against Turkey in response to an offensive against Syria that European Council President Donald Tusk has called a potential “humanitarian catastrophe” in the making.

“This unlawful and unwarranted attack against an American friend and partner threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of civilians, many of whom have already fled from their homes elsewhere in Syria to find safety in this region,” Graham and Van Hollen wrote in an accompanying statement to the bill.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) called the move to abandon the Kurds “unconscionable,” while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called it “morally repugnant.”

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said Trump is leaving America’s allies to be “slaughtered” and is “enabling the return of ISIS.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), meanwhile, called the “decision to abandon the Kurds…terribly unwise.” 

The opposition from Republicans is clear.

Many of Trump’s most ardent supporters are not only voicing their opposition to the policy change, but also calling out the president by name. But why now? Why are the same Republicans who stayed silent on foreign policy matters pertaining to other countries suddenly speaking up? 

Many of the lawmakers appear to be considering the decision from a national security perspective, highlighting the critical role the Kurds have played in keeping ISIS at bay, and the potential threat that their sudden vulnerability could pose to the U.S. And, overall, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have consistently supported a continued U.S. presence in Syria. 

“Whatever you think about the policy itself, this was done about as poorly as can be imagined, selling out a partner without warning or mitigation measures, no consultation with European allies, planning for what would come next, or due consideration to the consequences for coalition counterterrorism efforts,” says Alexander Bick, a Middle East Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars.

Bick adds that Republicans tend to have closer ties to the military, and “this move is deeply unpopular in the military,” not least because of the uncertainty it creates along the Syria-Turkey border and for Syria more broadly.

Fawaz A Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, says Trump has not only “shattered the relative consensus within the Republican Party about U.S. Mideast policy,” but that his shifting positions are “chaotic, incoherent, and temperamental, undermining America’s credibility worldwide and empowering its global and regional rivals like Russia and Iran.”

Trump’s propensity for unilateral actions that dramatically compromise long-standing global alliances are seen as a betrayal to top Republican senators, Gerges adds, but he does not expect to see a “full-blown revolt.”

With impeachment on the horizon, Kristen Nyman, a government affairs specialist at R Street Institute and a former legislative assistant for Rep. Rod Blum, believes Republicans will “begin to distance themselves from the President on issues that won’t impact their own re-election.”

In fact, Nyman points to the fact that many conservative voters support a strong national defense.

“Republicans coming out against U.S. inaction are arguing that the President’s decision was ‘weak on defense’ and will harm our domestic defense capital,” he says, “which is a “tried and true conservative talking point.”

Even Graham, a consistent and loyal Trump ally who is up for re-election next year, has used this opportunity to voice his opposition. 

Graham tweeted several times in opposition to Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, calling it a “disaster in the making,” while noting that such a move could spur the return of ISIS and ruin relations between Turkey and the U.S.

“By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible,” Graham added in another tweet. “America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways.”

Graham also went so far as to call Trump out by name.

“No matter what President Trump is saying about his decision, it is EXACTLY what President Obama did in Iraq with even more disastrous consequences for our national security,” he said.

Nyman notes that support for Trump has diminished slightly in Graham’s home state of South Carolina, so he may be “taking this low-risk opportunity” to distance himself from the president, while reasserting his own strong position on defense.

While the opportunity may be ‘low-risk,’ the effect could be significant. Graham and Van Hollen’s bill may, in name, be to impose sanctions on Turkey, but it also represents a harsh rebuke of Trump’s decision.

Democrats and Republicans alike appear to be in favor of the bill, and could even potentially deliver a veto-proof majority in Congress.

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