Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing

Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing
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Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee emerged Thursday from a closed-door briefing on the Trump administration’s Syria policy with outstanding questions about the president’s plan for a withdrawal.

Several GOP senators exiting the meeting offered a more tempered response to the proposed withdrawal after signs it is being slowed. Many Republicans had vocally opposed the withdrawal when President TrumpDonald John TrumpDACA recipient claims Trump is holding ‘immigrant youth hostage’ amid quest for wall Lady Gaga blasts Pence as ‘worst representation of what it means to be Christian’ We have a long history of disrespecting Native Americans and denying their humanity MORE announced it in December, when he said troops were "coming back now."

“I think there’s got to be some level of conditions with this withdrawal. If it’s just purely time-based, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisCentrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter GOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight MORE (R-N.C.) said.

Asked if he was satisfied the administration is not going forward with a hasty withdrawal, he said, “Not yet. Need more information.”

The Armed Services panel was briefed on the withdrawal Thursday by John Rood, the under secretary of Defense for policy; Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, the director of strategy, policy and planning for the Joint Staff; and Maj. Gen. Michael Groen, director of intelligence for the Joint Staff.

The briefing comes roughly three weeks after Trump announced he was withdrawing U.S. troops in Syria who are fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

At the time, Trump said the withdrawal would be immediate, with officials saying it would happen within 30 days.

But officials later pushed the timeline back to four months. Then, this past week, national security adviser John Bolton laid out conditions for withdrawal that could push the departure back even longer, including the defeat of ISIS and a deal with Turkey for the protection of the Kurds.

Trump has denied that Bolton’s comments contradicted his initial announcement, tweeting Monday that they were “no different from my original statements” and that “we will be leaving at a proper pace.”

But the morphing statements from the administration left lawmakers searching for clear answers.

On Thursday, Democrats on the Armed Services Committee appeared no more satisfied after the briefing that the administration has a strategy for Syria.

Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Energy: Pentagon report warns of climate threats to bases | Court halts offshore oil testing permits | Greens challenge federal drilling work during shutdown Overnight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pentagon warns of threat to bases from climate change MORE (R.I.), the top Democrat on the panel, would not discuss the briefing specifically, but said in general, “I don’t think they have a strategy.”

Committee member Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenGOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days MORE (D-N.H.) said she heard nothing new in the briefing and that the administration has not sufficiently backtracked on its withdrawal proposal for her.

“It’s a major foreign policy blunder because not only does it abandon the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces, but it leaves Russia and Iran to expand their influence in Syria," she said.

Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichSchumer wants answers from Trump on eminent domain at border Manafort developments trigger new ‘collusion’ debate Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing MORE (D-N.M.) said there is “a lot of confusion,” while Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he is still “deeply concerned” and “disturbed” on the effects on U.S. interests.

“Clearly the withdrawal is precipitous and extremely dangerous,” he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the panel appeared somewhat assuaged by the briefing.

Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofePressure mounts for Trump to reconsider Syria withdrawal Dems express alarm at Trump missile defense plans Dem senator expresses concern over acting EPA chief's 'speedy promotion' MORE (R-Okla.) said he is convinced the withdrawal will be conditions-based.

“I still believe it’s conditions based, regardless of what some rhetoric might have led some people to believe contrary,” he said.

Inhofe said that Trump “realizes that he’s not going to do something that we’re not ready to do, that we’re not equipped to do. And so I believe that will happen. I’ve gotten that assurance a lot of times, including in this meeting.”

When the withdrawal was announced, Inhofe expressed concern about protections for the Kurds going forward. On Thursday, he said he believes the Kurds will be “well taken care of.”

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsTrump tells GOP senators he’s sticking to Syria and Afghanistan pullout  Senators look for possible way to end shutdown GOP senators would support postponing State of the Union MORE (R-S.D.) said the military is focusing on making sure ISIS is defeated territorially before the withdrawal and that the departure is “as safe as possible” for U.S. troops.

“I don’t think it’s a hasty withdrawal. I think they’ve been told to do it with due process, or I think they called it ‘alacrity,’” he said.

Still, he said there are outstanding questions about what happens when U.S. troops leave.

“I think there’s still going to be a lot of questions about whether or not our allies are going to be able to handle the internally displaced individuals along the Jordanian border, along the Turkish border, and how we resolve those issues,” he said. “I think that’s very important part of the long-term success of maintaining or at least continuing to stop the spread of ISIS in that region.”

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerGOP senators would support postponing State of the Union Dems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing Hopes fade for bipartisan bills in age of confrontation MORE (R-N.D.), who is in his second week in the Senate, said he is concerned about protection for Kurdish forces once U.S. troops leave, but that he is comfortable with the planning underway now.

“I don’t want to say I’m quite satisfied, but I’m at least encouraged that that’s all part of the strategy,” he said. “It’s just not simply get out of here and remove all personnel and that’s the end of it.”

But he said he has questions he thinks can only be answered by Trump himself.

“I think his orders were rather specific, and while he provided some leeway in how quickly the withdrawal takes place and things like that, it is clear he is asking for a withdrawal,” he said. “So my question probably for him would be, can you foresee conditions changing that would cause you to change your mind?”