Report

An Angry Congress Prepares to Rebuke Trump Over Kurds

Lawmakers expect to get a veto-proof majority backing sanctions against Turkey.

A woman sits in front of the tomb a Syrian Democratic Forces fighter.
A woman sits in front of the tombstone of a Syrian Democratic Forces fighter in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria on April 10. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Bipartisan sanctions legislation targeting Turkey’s leadership places U.S. President Donald Trump on a collision course with congressional Republicans furious over his decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies in northeastern Syria.

Set to be introduced next week when Congress returns from recess, the measure represents a major rebuke of Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria and open the door to a Turkish offensive aimed at clearing the area of Kurdish fighters. The authors of the legislation and political analysts agree that the legislation, if it moves forward, is likely to pass with a veto-proof majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate.

“The goal here is to make it clear that Turkey will pay a steep price for its aggression against the Syrian Kurds,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat and one of the authors of the legislation, which targets the personal finances of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and places punishing restrictions on the country’s defense and energy sectors.

Written in collaboration with Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who normally serves as one of Trump’s staunchest defenders in the Senate, the legislation is the latest example of the huge divide between the president’s foreign-policy instincts and the party he leads. His decision to abandon the United States’ Kurdish allies has caused anguish with Republicans, with several senior party leaders speaking up in criticism of a president whose wrath they normally fear.

Key among the president’s critics is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who in a statement this week warned that there exists a veto-proof majority in the Senate that backs a continued U.S. military presence in northern Syria. “A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the [Bashar al-] Assad regime. And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup,” McConnell said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

This break between Trump and his congressional allies comes at a moment of intense political peril for the president. House Democrats are moving forward with an impeachment inquiry that polls indicate is supported by a majority of Americans and centers on whether Trump attempted to use levers of U.S. foreign policy for his own political benefit.

A politically wounded president has provided an opportunity for congressional Republicans to more openly defy Trump. With Democrats unearthing one damaging revelation after another about Trump’s conduct, Republican members of the House understand that Trump needs their support now more than ever to defend against the impeachment inquiry—and that has opened a space for Republican lawmakers to challenge the president’s Syria policy, said Jonathan Burks, who worked as a top aide to former House Speaker Paul Ryan and McConnell.

“Political capital is always a limited thing, and the president is spending quite a bit of political capital defending himself on impeachment charges,” Burks said.

Trump’s move against the Kurds has touched a raw nerve in Congress, where the embattled ethnic group is considered a cherished U.S. ally. Key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have personal relationships with Kurdish officials, and the decision to leave their lightly armed fighting forces at the mercy of Turkey’s modern, mechanized army has lawmakers furious.

“The Syrian Kurds were the tip of the spear in our fight against ISIS. They were our most effective ally,” Van Hollen said. “Throwing them under the bus is not only an act of betrayal, but it also will undermine our national security by sending the signal that we are an unreliable partner.”

That level of personal interest in preventing a slaughter of the Kurds makes it highly likely that even a Senate controlled by the Republican Party could advance legislation seeking to directly rein in Trump. “This isn’t a presidential tweet that everyone forgets about in a few days,” said Alex Conant, a veteran Republican strategist.

More than 11,000 Kurdish fighters were killed as they led assaults on Islamic State strongholds with U.S. and allied military support after the terrorist group swept through Syria and Iraq in 2014. Trump doubled down on the decision to withdraw troops on Wednesday and downplayed the importance of the U.S. partnership with Kurdish forces, telling reporters the Kurds didn’t storm the beaches of Normandy during World War II.

The sanctions package put together by Van Hollen and Graham seeks to compel Turkey to withdraw its forces from northern Syria by freezing the U.S. assets of Erdogan and several of his top ministers, including his top defense, treasury, and energy officials. It bans the sale of equipment to the Turkish armed forces, targets energy supplies to the Turkish armed forces, and mandates the imposition of sanctions stemming from Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.

If signed into law—perhaps over Trump’s veto—the sanctions package would represent a watershed in U.S.-Turkey relations. The two countries have been bound together militarily as NATO allies for nearly 70 years. Despite the formal alliance, however, relations between the two countries have become increasingly fraught as Turkey embraces its relationship with Russia and bristles at U.S. policy in the Middle East.

It is not clear that these measures would achieve the goal of compelling Turkey’s withdrawal. “[Erdogan] knows it best that his adversaries are not ready to walk the walk when it comes to playing hardball,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.

By cutting off transactions with the Turkish military, the sanctions bill could have significant spillover effects, including for defense companies in other American NATO allies. “If I were doing this, this is not how I’d do it. I’d focus directly on cutting Turkey off from the United States and freezing assets of key people,” said Richard Nephew, the former principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the U.S. State Department.

The current atmosphere on Capitol Hill is reminiscent of the early days of the Trump administration, when Congress overwhelmingly passed an aggressive sanctions package that required the White House to impose harsh financial penalties on Russia following that country’s efforts to boost Trump’s candidacy in 2016.

The resulting legislation, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, represented a landmark moment in Washington’s effort to use financial penalties to alter the behavior of its adversaries. It also represented a milestone in Congress’s efforts to reclaim a small measure of foreign-policy authority from the executive branch.

By requiring a set of harsh sanctions on Russia, Congress effectively tied Trump’s hands and prevented him from seeking the rapprochement that he desired with the Kremlin. The sanctions contemplated by Graham and Van Hollen attempt to do the same by going after the personal assets of Turkey’s top leader unless he withdraws his forces.

It’s not clear, however, that Trump will be entirely opposed to the sanctions bill. In a Monday tweet, Trump said he was open to using sanctions to restrain Turkey’s army. “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 said.

As Van Hollen sees it, his bill is advancing that position: “This is consistent with Trump’s tweets.”

Staff writer Amy Mackinnon contributed to this article.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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