WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump faced criticism Monday from fellow Republicans for declaring that U.S. troops in Syria would step aside for an expected Turkish attack on Kurds who have fought alongside Americans for years.
Even Trump's staunchest Republican allies expressed outrage at the prospect of abandoning Syrian Kurds who had fought the Islamic State with U.S. troops.
"A catastrophic mistake," said Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican leader.
"Shot in the arm to the bad guys," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a supermajority in the Senate disagreed with the president's abrupt withdrawal announcement, raising the specter of veto-proof action to oppose the decision.
Pentagon and State Department officials held out the possibility of persuading Turkey to abandon its expected invasion.
"It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home," Trump tweeted Monday in explaining his decision to pull U.S. troops out of northeast Syria and pave the way for Turkey's assault.
After facing strong pushback Monday for his decision, Trump threatened to destroy the Turks' economy if they went too far.
"If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey," he tweeted.
In recent weeks, the U.S. and Turkey had reached an apparent accommodation of Turkish concerns about the presence of Kurdish fighters, seen in Turkey as a threat. American and Turkish soldiers had been conducting joint patrols in a zone along the border. As part of that work, barriers designed to defend the Kurds were dismantled amid assurances that Turkey would not invade.
Graham said Turkey's NATO membership should be suspended if it attacks into northeastern Syria, potentially annihilating Kurdish fighters who acted as a U.S. proxy army in a five-year fight to eliminate the Islamic State's so-called caliphate. Graham, who had talked Trump out of a withdrawal from Syria last December, said letting Turkey invade would be a mistake of historic proportion.
"It's going to lead to ISIS reemergence," he told Fox News.
This all comes at a pivotal moment of Trump's presidency. House Democrats are marching forward with their impeachment inquiry into whether he compromised national security or abused his office by seeking negative information on former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, from Ukraine and other foreign countries.
As he faces the impeachment inquiry, Trump has appeared more focused on making good on his political pledges, even at the risk of sending a troubling signal to American allies abroad.
"I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home and bring them home as rapidly as possible," he said.
U.S. involvement in Syria has been fraught with peril since it started in 2014 with the insertion of small numbers of special operations forces to recruit, train, arm and advise local fighters to combat the Islamic State. Trump entered the White House in 2017 intent on getting out of Syria, and even before the military campaign against the Islamic State reclaimed the last militant strongholds early this year, he declared victory and said troops would leave.
Trump announced the change in U.S. policy Sunday night after speaking with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
One U.S. official said the Pentagon was working to make it clear to the Turkish military that "there will be a major break in relations" if Turkey attacks the Kurds.
Two senior State Department officials on Monday minimized the effects of the U.S. action, telling reporters that Turkey may not go through with a large-scale invasion and that the U.S. was still trying to discourage it. Both officials spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss what led to the internal White House decision.
Even if pressure from the U.S. and Europe succeeds in getting Erdogan to back down, the damage done to relations with the Kurds may be irreparable.
The announcement also injected deeper uncertainty into U.S. relations with European allies. A French official, speaking on condition of anonymity on a sensitive topic, said France wasn't informed ahead of time.
A Foreign Ministry statement warned Turkey to avoid any action that would harm the international coalition against the Islamic State and noted the Kurds had been essential allies, but entirely omitted any mention of the United States.
Trump defended his decision, acknowledging in tweets that "the Kurds fought with us" but adding that they "were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so."
Among the first to U.S. troops to pull back were about 30 from two outposts who would be in the immediate area of a Turkish invasion. It's unclear whether others among the roughly 1,000 U.S. forces in northeastern Syria would be moved, but officials said there is no plan for any to leave Syria entirely.
Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be a major boost to Russia's position there.
He added that other allies in the region, including the Kurds, will "look at this withdrawal as U.S. unwillingness to stand up for its rights and maintain its alliances in the region."
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was among those on Capitol Hill criticizing Trump's decision.
"If the President sticks with this retreat, he needs to know that this bad decision will likely result in the slaughter of allies who fought with us, including women and children,'' said Sasse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Responding to the Republican criticism on Monday, Trump said that he had "consulted with everybody" but held back from his usual tactic of attacking any critics, saying that he respectfully disagreed with those opposed to his decision.
"I could name other people who are thrilled," he told reporters.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on "Fox & Friends" that he had not been briefed by the president about the decision and that he had concerns.
"I want to make sure we keep our word for those who fight with us and help us," he said, adding, "If you make a commitment and somebody is fighting with you, America should keep their word."
Former Trump administration officials also expressed alarm.
Nikki Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the U.S. "must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. ... Leaving them to die is a big mistake."
Some evangelical Christian leaders aligned with Republicans also condemned the decision, warning that Turkish aggressions in northern Syrian could imperil Christian communities there.
"The president of the United States is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen," Pat Robertson said on the Christian Broadcasting Network's show The 700 Club.
This report includes material from the Washington Post.