WASHINGTON — Rep. Jeff Fortenberry says the crisis in Syria reflects a tension between two realities.
“The reality is we do have to get out of endless wars,” Fortenberry said Wednesday. “The other reality is we have to be supportive of allies.”
Fortenberry spoke to The World-Herald moments after voting with fellow Nebraska Republican Reps. Don Bacon and Adrian Smith to condemn President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria.
That withdrawal helped clear the way for Turkey’s ongoing assault on Kurdish areas there.
The House overwhelmingly voted 354-60 to denounce the U.S. troop withdrawal, drawing votes from not only Democrats but also Republicans who have been staunch Trump supporters. Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, also supported the resolution. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, opposed it.
At the White House, however, Trump expressed little regret about his decision to pull back. Rather, he said the U.S. has no business in the region — and not to worry about the Kurdish fighters.
“They know how to fight,” he said. “And by the way, they’re no angels.”
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Many Democrats, and some Republicans, have slammed Trump’s pullback as an abandonment of the Kurds, who proved themselves valuable allies as they died by the thousands fighting alongside America against the Islamic State extremists.
Nebraska’s U.S. senators, both Republicans, also have questioned Trump’s troop withdrawal.
Many lawmakers expressed worry that the move may lead to revival of the Islamic State and said they were concerned about Russian influence in the area and the slaughter of many Kurds.
“The decision to withdraw American troops and abandon the Kurds is not only morally indefensible, it undermines the safety of the American people,” Nebraska State Sen. Kate Bolz said last week after the withdrawal was announced. Bolz, a Democrat, hopes to challenge Fortenberry in 2020.
The issue hits close to home for Fortenberry, who has long worked on international issues generally and specifically on the plight of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.
Fortenberry expressed frustration that he has yet to get traction on a resolution to create a security plan for religious minorities in northern Iraq. He said such a plan could serve as a template for other areas.
“It hasn’t been done,” Fortenberry said. “I’m still crying in the wilderness.”
With the tension between the two realities in Syria, Fortenberry said the question is whether there was a way to start a more deliberate pullback of American troops but still prevent Turkish aggression.
Trump said he is fulfilling a campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from “endless wars” in the Middle East — casting aside criticism that a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Syria not only betrays the Kurdish fighters but also stains U.S. credibility around the world and opens an important region to Russia, which is moving in.
“We have a situation where Turkey is taking land from Syria. Syria’s not happy about it. Let them work it out,” Trump said. “They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it.”
Trump said he was sending Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara to urge the Turks to halt their weeklong offensive into northeastern Syria. But his remarks, first to reporters in the Oval Office and later at a press conference with his Italian counterpart, suggested that he sees little at stake for America.
“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”
Fortenberry said he understands exasperation that other countries are always relying on America to be the world’s policeman, but he said it’s in America’s interest to protect its allies while fostering peace and stability.
He said all he can do is continue to advocate his approach to the administration and congressional leaders.
“The idea I’ve proposed is a very minimal footprint with other countries that actually creates conditions for stability through security,” Fortenberry said.
In an interview Wednesday, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said she doesn’t like the decision to withdraw U.S. troops, and she split with Trump over his insistence that America has little at stake in the region.
It’s a strategic location, and having Russians operating in that area is not good, Fischer said.
“I would disagree with the president,” Fischer said. “It’s not fantastic that the Russians are there.”
Nebraska’s junior senator, Ben Sasse, was one of the first GOP lawmakers to criticize the move, saying it would result in the slaughter of American allies.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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