Congress Foreign Relations & International Law

Congress on U.S. Policy Toward Syria and Turkey: An Overview of Recent Hearings

William Ford
Tuesday, October 29, 2019, 3:44 PM

It has been almost three weeks since the president ordered the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria. The move allowed the Turkish military and its proxies to swiftly invade the area, setting off a cascade of events that has forced America’s Syrian-Kurdish partners to strike a deal with the Assad regime, exposed Kurdish soldiers and civilians to a barrage of attacks, enabled more than 100 ISIS fighters to escape Kurdish detention facilities, and facilitated the growth of Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

Senator Lindsay Graham of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Source: Flickr/U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Jaime Rodriguez Sr.)

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It has been almost three weeks since the president ordered the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria. The move allowed the Turkish military and its proxies to swiftly invade the area, setting off a cascade of events that has forced America’s Syrian-Kurdish partners to strike a deal with the Assad regime, exposed Kurdish soldiers and civilians to a barrage of attacks, enabled more than 100 ISIS fighters to escape Kurdish detention facilities, and facilitated the growth of Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

As the situation in northeast Syria has deteriorated, Congress has emerged as a fierce critic of the president’s decision. On Oct. 16, in a vote of 354 to 60, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the president’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from the northeast. Senators and representatives have introduced legislation to impose harsh sanctions on Turkey. And on Oct. 19, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Jordan to discuss the Syrian crisis with King Abdullah II.

Amid this flurry of activity, Congress has held four hearings on U.S. policy toward Syria and Turkey. The first—a House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee hearing on Oct. 16—examined the recommendations of the Syria Study Group, a congressionally appointed task force created to review U.S. policy in Syria and outline military and diplomatic steps America can take to secure its interests there. The subcommittee heard testimony from the study group’s co-chairs, Dana Stroul and Michael Singh, both fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who have extensive experience working on Middle East issues in government. The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees held the second and third hearings, respectively, on Oct. 22 and 23. Both committees heard testimony from James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement and the special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and Matthew Palmer, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. And later on Oct. 23, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs held the fourth and final hearing, which featured further testimony from Ambassador Jeffrey.

While the furious pace of events in Syria has rendered some lawmakers’ questions and aspects of witness testimony outdated (in recent days, the U.S. launched a raid that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the brutal leader of ISIS, and stationed American soldiers in the northeast to guard Syrian oil fields), Congress’s hearings nevertheless offered important insight into how the legislators seek to shape three key areas of U.S. policy toward Syria and the region: (a) the U.S.-Turkey relationship, (b) the campaign to defeat ISIS, and (c) efforts to counter Iranian and Russian influence with an eye toward securing a political resolution to the Syrian conflict.

Evaluating the U.S.-Turkey Relationship

Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to invade northeast Syria, Democratic and Republican lawmakers considered how to respond to Turkey’s aggression and whether to restrict U.S. cooperation with Ankara moving forward.

Throughout the hearings, lawmakers seemed intent on using sanctions to hold Turkey accountable for its incursion in Syria. With the exception of Rep. Ilhan Omar, who strongly opposes sanctions, congressional debate focused not on if Congress should sanction Turkey, but on how severe those sanctions should be, and whether they should seek to punish past Turkish behavior or shape future Turkish actions. The Syria Study Group co-chairs and the government’s witnesses urged lawmakers to use sanctions, and the threat thereof, to prompt specific changes in Turkey’s behavior, not to punish the NATO ally. Jeffrey testified repeatedly that the sanctions the administration imposed on Turkey via executive order, coupled with the threat of congressional sanctions, played a pivotal role in the Turkish government’s decision to “pause” its offensive on Oct. 17. Jeffrey expressed his opposition, however, to “absolute” sanctions bills, or bills without built-in waivers, which make it difficult to lift sanctions even if Turkey changes its actions.

Some lawmakers nevertheless preferred imposing harsher and more inflexible sanctions than the ones levied and supported by the administration. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, for instance, contended that Congress should pass a severe set of sanctions to signal to Turkey and the world that the U.S. would not tolerate behavior like the Turks’ and would meet similar aggression with a significant response. And at the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Sen. Chris Van Hollen suggested that Congress pass an exacting sanctions framework now, in order to ensure that sanctions would automatically be triggered if the Turks escalated hostilities in Syria and launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds.

Lawmakers also pressed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer on why the administration has not yet sanctioned Ankara under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). CAATSA directs the president to sanction countries that engage in “a significant transaction” with the Russian military, as Turkey seems to have done with its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Oct. 22, Sen. Bob Menendez asked Palmer if there was any “realistic scenario in which the purchase of an S-400 is not a ‘significant transaction’ under the law.” The deputy assistant secretary replied that the State Department has not yet made that determination “as a matter of law” and elaborated at the House hearing the next day that Turkey’s status as a NATO ally complicates the prospect of sanctioning it under CAATSA. Menendez bristled at Palmer’s responses, declaring that “if the purchase of the S-400 is not a significant military transaction … then nothing is.” The senator added that if the State Department’s legal position is that the purchase of the S-400 is not a significant transaction, Congress must know that. He closed by stating that he would “force an answer” out of the department if it failed to announce its legal position soon.

While some elected officials focused solely on sanctioning Turkey for its transgressions, others seemed to support restricting America’s broader engagement with Ankara moving forward. Rep. Chris Smith—citing Turkey’s use of U.S. materiel during its invasion of Cyprus in 1974—wondered whether Congress should deny military assistance to Turkey altogether in order to limit U.S. complicity in further acts of Turkish aggression. And several members of Congress questioned the feasibility of maintaining American personnel and assets, including 50 nuclear weapons, at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. At the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Oct. 16, Kinzinger stated that he and Rep. David Cicilline had introduced a bill, the U.S.-Turkey Relations Review Act, which would require the administration to examine the viability of removing American soldiers and weapons from Incirlik. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing less than a week later, Sen. Ed Markey pressed Palmer on whether the Departments of State and Energy have considered taking U.S. nukes from Turkey and placing them elsewhere. Palmer refused to answer the question, noting that he could not discuss the logistics of U.S. nuclear activities in an open setting.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state, worried that pulling out of Incirlik now might push Turkey further into Russia’s orbit. If Washington plans to cede the Middle East to Moscow, Malinowski quipped, it might not be wise to withdraw American personnel and assets from the Turkish air base.

Though lawmakers engaged in lengthy debate about the aforementioned issues, they failed to adequately address ways to resolve long-standing hostilities between Turkey and the Kurds.

As Jeffrey noted in his written testimony, America’s decision to partner with the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—a Kurdish militia that became part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s principal ally in the fight against the Islamic State—created significant tension in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. Turkey views the YPG as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group that has led an anti-regime insurgency in Turkey since 1984. Jeffrey stated that the Turks have long been alarmed to see the YPG receive American funding, arms, training and support in the fight against ISIS.

The special envoy noted that America took a series of steps to assuage Turkey’s fears that a stronger YPG would mean an emboldened and ascendant PKK. In January 2019, the Trump administration worked with President Erdogan to implement a safe zone in northeast Syria; in August 2019, the U.S. and Turkey organized a military arrangement to patrol the northeast, which required the YPG to pull back from the Turkish border. These moves helped insulate Turkey from the perceived threat of YPG military activity. But they were not ultimately enough to dissuade Erdogan from invading Syria. Nor were the incentives that President Trump offered his Turkish counterpart—including the promise of a $100 billion trade package and a White House visit and the threat of sanctions—able to prevent the violent incursion. These incentives failed, Jeffrey explained, because Ankara views the PKK as an “existential” threat that must be addressed with military action.

In the hearings, lawmakers appeared to be familiar with the Turkish view of the YPG. Sen. James Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, observed in his opening remarks that Turkey has consistently prioritized its decades-long struggle with the PKK over the fight against ISIS. And Sen. Lindsey Graham asserted that repairing America’s relationship with Turkey would require a sustainable, long-term resolution between Turkey and the Kurds. While Graham failed to specify which Kurdish group he was referring to (the senator seems to have meant the YPG), he and other lawmakers expressed their view that it was important for the U.S. to address the long-festering tensions and violence between Ankara and the Kurds.

To confront these tensions head on, the Syria Study Group recommended in its final report that the U.S. “[e]ncourage and offer to facilitate renewed Turkey-PKK peace talks, which present the best path to resolution of Turkish concerns with the SDF.” But the possibility of American efforts to incentivize and facilitate Turkey-PKK peace talks did not come up again during the roughly 10 hours of hearings, either in witness testimony or in questions from lawmakers. Indeed, Jeffrey’s lukewarm response to Graham’s point about finding a long-term resolution between Turkey and the Kurds suggests that the U.S. is entirely unwilling to spend the limited diplomatic capital it has in Ankara to press Turkey to resume negotiations with the PKK.

According to the Syria Study Group, a two-and-a-half-year cease-fire between the PKK and the Turkish government that began in 2013 broke down in July 2015. Between July 2015 and July 2017, PKK terror attacks and clashes between Turkish forces and the Kurdish insurgency claimed the lives of almost 3,000 people.

Combating ISIS

On a bipartisan basis, senators and representatives denounced Turkey’s invasion of Syria and the president’s decision to abandon the SDF as an unequivocal victory for ISIS. Their primary concern lay with the disruption of counter-ISIS operations caused by the withdrawal. Lawmakers argued that this disruption has eased pressure on a group that remains a serious threat to the U.S. and its allies. Even after the death of the group’s leader, Baghdadi, on Oct. 26, Graham stressed that “the war is by no means over.”

Lawmakers pressed the government’s witnesses on the feasibility of maintaining a residual force in Syria and American air support for the SDF as a means of continuing to exert pressure on ISIS. Jeffrey tried to quell lawmakers’ fears, stating that America would partner with the SDF, Turkey and Russia in the continued fight against ISIS. But lawmakers, including Cicilline and Risch, expressed serious doubt about Turkey’s commitment to that fight.

Lawmakers’ questions also focused extensively on the escape of more than 100 ISIS detainees from Kurdish detention facilities. When pressed by Sen. Chris Coons, Jeffrey admitted that the administration did not know where the escaped detainees were and had no immediate plan to recapture them. In its final report, the Syria Study Group noted that the SDF lacks the resources to hold ISIS detainees indefinitely. And in his testimony before the House, study group co-chair Singh noted that the Turkish invasion had upended European countries’ limited efforts to repatriate ISIS fighters in SDF custody. According to Singh, northeast Syria’s current instability has rendered the sustained diplomatic work and detention-facility visits needed to repatriate ISIS fighters virtually impossible. Lawmakers offered little in the way of substantive solutions to address detention-related issues.

Though lawmakers focused principally on how to repair the damage done to the counter-ISIS campaign, Singh also urged lawmakers not to overlook or underestimate the threat posed by other terrorist organizations in Syria, namely Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Diin, the local al-Qaeda affiliate. The latter group presents considerable cause for concern; Hurras ad-Diin has declared its commitment to launching external attacks against the United States.

Maximizing U.S. Leverage to Counter Iranian and Russian Influence and Secure a Political Resolution

In his testimony before Congress, Jeffrey stated that two of America’s principal goals in Syria are “the reduction and expulsion of Iranian malign influence” and securing a political resolution to the conflict on terms both favorable to the U.S. and consistent with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a new Syrian constitution and free and fair elections.

Though the president has withdrawn U.S. forces from bases across northeast Syria, Jeffrey confirmed at multiple points during his two days of testimony that Trump planned to maintain the U.S. garrison at the al-Tanf base in southern Syria, a key strategic post limiting Iranian activity in the south. The base sits astride the main east-west highway linking Tehran to Beirut and has prevented Iran from forming a land bridge directly connecting its territory with Lebanon, an important Iranian ally. In an exchange with Graham at the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Oct. 23, Jeffrey also confirmed that the president intended to station U.S. forces around Syrian oil fields in the northeast to prevent the fields from falling into the hands of Iran or other American adversaries. But Murphy questioned how the administration would supply these isolated forces given America’s broader troop drawdown in the northeast. Although Jeffrey observed that the Defense Department would be better positioned to answer Murphy’s question, he added that the administration was contemplating keeping an airbase open in the area to ensure it could provide American soldiers with the materiel and support they need.

While Jeffrey and Palmer offered up little else on America’s efforts to counter Iran, Stroul and Singh highlighted Israel’s efforts to push back against Iranian activity in Syria through airstrikes and encouraged the administration to support the airstrikes by sharing intelligence and providing the Israelis diplomatic cover if necessary. The pair also noted that Iran continues to entrench itself socially and economically in Syria, cementing its influence in a manner often unnoticed but no less consequential than its deployment of ground troops and proxies in the country.

Stroul and Singh outlined several other ways the U.S. could maximize its leverage in Syria, both to pressure Iran and Russia and to influence a negotiated settlement to the conflict. First, they suggested that Washington not approve funds to aid reconstruction efforts in Syria. Though the Assad regime continues to receive considerable support from Moscow and Tehran, Damascus and its backers do not have the finances necessary to rebuild the towns and cities torn apart by the war. Money and resources sufficient to sustain that process can come only from the United States, Europe, and access to global financial institutions, from which the Assad regime is barred. Stroul and Singh thus recommended the U.S. use its control over badly needed reconstruction funds to secure concessions from the Assad regime. The pair also suggested two largely symbolic ways of denying recognition to Assad. First, they urged lawmakers to sanction governments, persons and institutions that resume business with the regime because of a perception that Assad has “won” the war. Finally, Stroul and Singh encouraged the U.S., its allies and international institutions to continue to deny the Assad regime political legitimacy.

The Syria Study Group co-chairs attached two major caveats to these recommendations. First, they stressed that the aforementioned initiatives would provide the U.S. with meaningful leverage only if such initiatives receive proper funding. Second, they noted that the U.S. could enhance its leverage in Syria only if the administration empowers American diplomats to lead a global coalition to exert multilateral pressure on Tehran, Moscow and Damascus. Both Democrats and Republicans doubted this was possible.

America’s failure to coordinate with its allies or consult with senior U.S. diplomats on the administration’s policy in Syria was high on lawmakers’ minds. Sen. Tim Kaine remarked that it was his understanding that the administration had given neither the British nor the French advance notice of the president’s decision earlier this month to withdraw U.S. forces from northeast Syria. Indeed, Rep. Susan Wild observed that French President Emmanuel Macron learned of the president’s troop drawdown via Twitter. Jeffrey did not correct either lawmaker on the factual assertions they made. And when pressed by Menendez, Sen. Patrick Leahy and others, Jeffrey conceded that he, too, received no advance notice of the president’s decision and was not asked to weigh in on it immediately before it happened. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen added that the administration not only failed to consult U.S. diplomats and allies but also refused to spend stabilization funds that Congress appropriated last year.

Lawmakers therefore viewed with considerable doubt the notion that America might execute a sustained, well-calibrated strategy in Syria in a way that counters Russian and Iranian influence and secures a political settlement favorable to the U.S.

William Ford is an impact associate at Protect Democracy. He previously was an appellate litigation fellow in the New York Attorney General's Office and a research intern at Lawfare. He holds a bachelor's degree with honors from the College of the Holy Cross.

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