Washington — The U.S. has imposed new sanctions against Turkish officials and institutions over the country's incursion into northern Syria, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Vice President Mike Pence announced outside the White House on Monday.
Specifically, Mnuchin said the U.S. has sanctioned three Turkish ministers along with their department of defense and ministry of energy. Pence told reporters Mr. Trump spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Monday and called for an immediate ceasefire as Turkish troops move further into Syria.
"The president of the United States called on the president of Turkey to stop the invasion," Pence said on the driveway outside the Oval Office after meeting with the president.
Pence said Mr. Trump signed an executive order authorizing the sanctions and directed him to lead a delegation to Turkey to begin negotiating a resolution between the Turks and Kurds. The president also ordered a hike on steel tariffs and immediately canceled negotiations over a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey.
The executive order authorizes the treasury secretary to sanction Turkish officials for "actions or policies that further threaten the peace, security, stability, or territorial integrity of Syria." In an earlier statement, the president said he was "fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey's economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path."
The move represents the administration's first concrete effort to punish Turkey, a NATO ally, for its incursion into areas held by Kurdish allies of the U.S. after the president ordered a hasty removal of troops from northern Syria last week.
"If Turkey's operation continues, it will exacerbate a growing and daunting humanitarian crisis, with potentially disastrous consequences," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. "To avoid suffering further sanctions imposed under this new executive order, Turkey must immediately cease its unilateral offensive in northeast Syria and return to a dialogue with the United States on security in northeast Syria."
The sanctions come after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she and GOP Senator Lindsey Graham agreed Congress should pass a resolution to "overturn" Mr. Trump's decision to pull troops. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also released a statement Monday saying he's "gravely concerned" by what's happening in Syria "and by our nation's apparent response so far."
The withdrawal has sparked perhaps the strongest criticism of the president from Republicans of any issue since Mr. Trump's presidency, and at a time when he most needs Republicans' support during the impeachment inquiry. Republicans have been trying to talk the president out of the decision, as Turkey moves deeper into Syria, threatening Kurdish allies who helped the U.S. defeat ISIS fend for their lives.
"Pleased to have a conversation with Senator @LindseyGrahamSC this morning," Pelosi tweeted. "Our first order of business was to agree that we must have a bipartisan, bicameral joint resolution to overturn the president's dangerous decision in Syria immediately."
McConnell said he looks forward to talking with his colleagues in the Senate and with senior administration officials about "what the United States can do to avoid a strategic calamity." He went on to say that while Turkey is a NATO ally, its offensive against the U.S.' Kurdish partners "is jeopardizing years of hard-won progress in the fight against ISIS," and he argued that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria now would "re-create the very conditions that we have worked hard to destroy and invite the resurgence of ISIS." More broadly, he said, withdrawal would create a power vacuum that Iran and Russia would exploit, which is "a catastrophic outcome" for U.S. strategic interests.
Graham, in an appearance on Fox News' "Fox and Friends," said the Trump administration would work with Republicans and Democrats to "crush" Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and "break his economy" until he stops the bloodshed in northern Syria. The South Carolina senator also said he would be meeting with the president Monday afternoon. He told the Fox News hosts that Turkey would see a "united front," and said that in addition to Pelosi, he was talking with other Democrats — Senators Chris Van Hollen and Bob Menendez.
The U.S. was "preparing to evacuate" about a thousand U.S. troops from northern Syria, Defense Secretaryin an interview Sunday. The president said Monday that "a small footprint of United States forces will remain at At Tanf Garrison in southern Syria to continue to disrupt remnants of ISIS."
The Kurds, former U.S. officials and senior Republican lawmakers have warned that the U.S. pullout from the region could give ISIS room to rebuild and send a message that the U.S. is willing to abandon close allies when the political winds change.
Esper told "Face the Nation" host Margaret Brennan that the remaining U.S. troops were caught between Turkish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. Esper said that he had spoken with Mr. Trump Saturday after discussions with the rest of the national security team. Mr. Trump, Esper said, then ordered a "deliberate withdrawal" of forces from northern Syria.
The move comes a week after Mr. Trump announced the repositioning of several dozen American troops embedded with Kurdish forces in northern Syria, opening the door for a Turkish offensive against the SDF.
Esper also told "Face the Nation" host Margaret Brennan that over the weekend, the U.S. had learned that the Turks "likely intend to extend their attack further south than originally planned, and to the west." He added that "we also have learned in the last 24 hours that the ... SDF are looking to cut a deal, if you will, with the Syrians and the Russians to counterattack against the Turks in the north."
According to the United Nations, more than 100,000 internally displaced people are fleeing the violence.
Shortly after the initial pullback last week, Turkey began its onslaught, attacking the northern part of the country. On Saturday, the fourth day of the offensive, Turkish forces captured a key border town from the SDF. ISIS prisoners were also able to escape imprisonment when Turkish artillery hit a prison compound.
Kathryn Watson, Rebecca Kaplan and John Nolen contributed to this report.