WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, on Tuesday questioned Special Representative for Syria Engagement at the U.S. State Department James Jeffrey and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Palmer during the first U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing since the president announced he would withdrawal U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. Murphy specifically pressed Jeffrey and Palmer on President Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds, our allies in fighting ISIS in Syria, and the list of national security ramifications this will have.
“I think it speaks to the utter chaos of American foreign policy today that you were not consulted or talked to about this decision prior to it being made,” Murphy pressed Jeffrey after admitting during the hearing that he was not consulted on the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria.
“…the word that our soldiers are using as they are moving out of their positioning is betrayal. They've been embedded with the Kurds, with the SDF, and they feel that they have been part of a betrayal of the forces that they have been supporting and fighting alongside,” Murphy added. “One of their specific grievances is that we convinced the Kurds to dismantle some of their defenses along the border with Turkey in anticipation of the United States and Turkey being able to work out some joint patrols. But in tearing down those defenses, it left the Kurds much more susceptible to the inevitable attack that came.
Following President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, Murphy and U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called on the president to reconsider his decision, which they said would open the door for Turkey to attack. The senators also called it a victory for Assad, Russia, Iran and ISIS. Murphy released the following statement after President Trump announced sanctions against Turkey for their actions. Earlier today, Murphy made the following comments after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an announced a ceasefire.
A complete transcript of Murphy’s exchange with Mr. Jeffrey is below:
MURPHY: “Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. With such amazing respect for the work that you've done throughout your career, and particularly the job that you have taken on most recently, and that's why I think some of the most stunning testimony that we've heard here today came in answer to Senator Menendez’s early questioning when he asked whether you had been consulted prior to this momentous decision being made.
“I don't really know why we have someone with the title, Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, if they are not consulted before the president takes the most significant single action affecting U.S. interest in Syria, and the future of ISIS during his presidency. And I think it speaks to the utter chaos of American foreign policy today that you were not consulted or talked to about this decision prior to it being made.
“I had a recently retired general who commanded or oversaw American troops in Syria in my office last night. He was distraught. In part because he tells me that the word that our soldiers are using as they are moving out of their positioning is betrayal. They've been embedded with the Kurds with the [SDF], and they feel that they have been part of a betrayal of the forces that they have been supporting and fighting alongside. One of their specific grievances is that we convinced the Kurds to dismantle some of their defenses along the border with Turkey in anticipation of the United States and Turkey being able to work out some joint patrols. But in tearing down those defenses, it left the Kurds much more susceptible to the inevitable attack that came.
“In retrospect, do you think that it was a good idea for the United States to press the Kurds into dismantling these defenses?”
JEFFREY: “Of all the things that I've experienced in this particular portfolio, and particularly this sub-sector of it with the Turks and the Kurds, the thing that I am most disturbed about is the fact that after having agreed to a way forward with us in August, Turkey to do these joint patrols in the dismantling of fortifications, then suddenly, inexplicably from my standpoint and many others, the Turkish leadership decided that they would just march in and do it all themselves.
“The requirements of the August agreement were for the YPG to dismantle fortifications in the, what we call the safe-zone, but essentially the zone we're talking about. The truth is they that was the one thing they didn't do a very good job of, and perhaps they felt that they could see what was coming, and this was a major bone of contention between us, the Turks and SDF.”
MURPHY: “I certainly think that we can draw issue with the Turks’ decision to abrogate the agreement we made with them, but it would have been an additional reason for us not to sell them out by removing our forces given that we had asked them to take this extraordinary measure, which they took in anticipation of us remaining the bulwark between them and the Turks.
“A part of your testimony that I'm having a little trouble understanding is your belief that the president has not green lighted or did not green light the actions by Turkey. On Sunday night, the president sent out a press release, in which he said that he had just gotten off the phone with the president of Turkey and that they would now be moving forward with their long-planned operation into northern Syria.
“He took the one action that was a precondition to the Turks mounting [their] offensive, which was the removal of our forces, and since then he has defended Turkey's actions. He said: ‘They've got to keep going at each other. It's artificial to have these soldiers walking up and down between the two countries.’ He said: ‘Like two kids in a lot, you've got to let them fight.’
“I mean, the world read that statement on Sunday night. It's listened to the president defend the decision of Turkey to enter Syria, listened to the president talk as if it's a good thing that the two sides are now fighting each other without the United States in the middle of it. How is the world not to read all of those actions as a clear green light to Turkey to come in? The president is defending the decision that he made.”
JEFFREY: “A couple of points. First, the president did say those things, he also said many other things, including I will crush the economy because Erdogan has released—well, actually we released a letter to President Erdogan. You can see that the president took very tough language with President Erdogan on this issue. Advocated some kind of an agreement or arrangement with the SDF leader, General Mazloum.
“But in addition, and I think it's a very important point here: this idea of betrayal and giving a green light. It's as if our troops in northeast Syria were like our troops along the Korean DMZ to hold off a force from the north. They were not, that's not where they were.
“There were two outposts, each of 12 people along that whole area of 140 kilometers. And we had told the Turks, I was involved in telling them that, that is simply to observe whether the Kurds are shooting across the border at you or you're shooting across the border at them. That was not a security perimeter of any sort.
“The forces that we eventually did move were way west of any of this fighting. And they were moved again, and DOD can explain why, but looking at it on the map, it was clear that pretty soon they would have been cut off as the Turks came down to the main east-west highway.
“And that's my understanding of why the decision was made. But I repeat, and from having followed obsessively, Turkish, including the intelligence that I can't get into here, Turkish views on this, of all of the things I saw, and they’re all over the map Senator, I never once saw any Turk in any way, in a position of responsibility, saying, ‘gee, what are we going to do about those US military forces?’ They knew they did not have an order to defend the Kurds, well the YPD—”
MURPHY: “You don't think that our forces were a deterrent?”
JEFFREY: “Absolutely not and I will cite Ash Carter, Sunday on, I think that was with Stephanopoulos, when he was asked specifically and he said ‘we never,’ this is the last administration. ‘We never told the Kurds that we would defend the militarily against Turkey and that means we didn't tell Turkey.’ This was followed up in Face the Nation by General Tony Thomas, who said essentially the same thing to Margaret Brennan.”
MURPHY: “I think our soldiers on the ground were led to believe something fundamentally different. And so query as to how our soldiers who are carrying out the mission felt that they were betraying the Kurds, if ultimately, part of the reason for being there wasn't to protect them against the very nation on their border that was seeking to destroy them.”