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McConnell's Syria resolution puts him at odds with Trump, Graham and Democrats

Some troops may stay in Syria

Washington — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced legislation on Tuesday denouncing Turkey's invasion of northern Syria and prodding President Trump to halt his withdrawal of U.S. troops from the embattled country.

But McConnell, a Republican, said lawmakers should refrain from imposing sanctions on Turkey for now — a move being advocated for by his Senate ally Lindsey Graham and Democrats.

"I'm aware there is some appetite on both sides of the aisle to quickly reach for the toolbox of sanctions," McConnell said. "[But] we don't want to further drive a NATO ally into the arms of the Russians."

Senators Graham and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, have introduced a bipartisan package that would bar arms sales to Turkey and place sanctions on the assets of top Turkish officials. Meanwhile, the House is planning to vote on a sanctions measure next week. 

"The United States should not be dithering," Van Hollen said of McConnell's desire to hold off on sanctions. "We shouldn't be twiddling our thumbs while our allies are being massacred and while ISIS is coming back."

McConnell's legislation comes the same day that Russia and Turkey announced an agreement that gives both countries control over the northeastern border of Syria and nearly a week after the Democratic-led House voted 354 to 60 for a bipartisan resolution opposing the U.S. troop withdrawal from the region. That resolution also called on the White House to develop a plan to prevent a resurgence of ISIS and support Syrian Kurds displaced by the fighting.

Syrian displaced families, who fled violence after the Turkish offensive in Syria, stand in queue to get their food from Barzani charity at a refugee camp in Bardarash on the outskirts of Dohuk
Syrian displaced families, who fled violence after the Turkish offensive in Syria, stand in line to get their food at a refugee camp in Bardarash on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq, on October 18, 2019. Ari Jalal / REUTERS

Turkey invaded northern Syria this month after Mr. Trump abruptly decided to pull U.S. troops out of the region. Mr. Trump's move effectively abandoned Syrian Kurdish fighters, who have been the United States' biggest allies in battling the ISIS. 

McConnell's resolution says the withdrawal of U.S. troops should be halted "where practical," and says the U.S. should continue using air power to attack ISIS fighters in Syria. It also says Mr. Trump should rescind his invitation to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a White House visit until a solid ceasefire between Turkish and Kurdish forces has been reached. Many lawmakers have opposed the White House invitation as an unwarranted prize to an anti-democratic strongman.

"I am introducing a Senate resolution to reaffirm the need for a strong U.S. presence and oppose premature withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan," McConnell tweeted on Tuesday, while calling out Democrats. "Some of the Democrats criticizing the administration today wanted to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan just a few months ago. They can't have this both ways. We need clarity: Which Senators support American leadership in the fight against terrorism and which do not?"

The Pentagon has developed a plan to keep keeping about 200 U.S. soldiers in eastern Syria to help the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) secure oilfields. But House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, said sanctions — which his chamber will vote on next week — are still needed. (The sanctions vote was confirmed by a Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.)

"The president is unpredictable. You never know what he's going to do from time to time," said Engel. 

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