Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Friday strongly condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria, calling it a “grave strategic mistake” in a blistering op-ed.
McConnell’s public criticism of the Trump administration is rare, but he has been vocally opposed to the President’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria following an October phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some lawmakers have made that opposition clear during phone calls with Vice President Mike Pence’s office, according to a source familiar with the phone calls. And an official told CNN Pence phoned McConnell on his flight back from Ankara after brokering a brief ceasefire between Turkey and Syria.
In a statement to CNN on Saturday, McConnell spokesman David Popp said the op-ed “had nothing to do with his conversation with Vice President Pence.”
But the conversation did not keep the GOP leader from penning that op-ed published in The Washington Post on Friday, ripping the President’s decision to withdraw from Syria — without naming him. Popp declined to provide details of McConnell’s call with Pence.
McConnell warned that the withdrawal of US troops from Syria “will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances.”
He said the US pullback “risks repeating the Obama administration’s reckless withdrawal from Iraq, which facilitated the rise of the Islamic State in the first place.”
Earlier this month, the White House announced — following a call between Trump and the Turkish President — that US forces in northern Syria would move aside in advance of a planned Turkish military offensive. The move effectively greenlighted the Turks to attack US-backed Kurdish forces, who were key allies in the campaign against ISIS in the region. McConnell and other congressional Republicans forcefully came out against the decision.
Trump has defended his decision, saying on Twitter, “It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”
In the Post op-ed, McConnell wrote that US withdrawal in Syria and the escalation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is “creating a strategic nightmare for our country.” He argued that the absence of the US will allow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Iran to expand influence in the region.
In another break from the President, the Kentucky Republican also said the Syria situation “must chasten the United States against withdrawing from Afghanistan before the job is done.”
“As neo-isolationism rears its head on both the left and the right, we can expect to hear more talk of ‘endless wars.’ But rhetoric cannot change the fact that wars do not just end; wars are won or lost,” McConnell wrote.
The President had announced last December that he would withdraw all US troops from Syria, which sparked outrage and led to the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis. McConnell said in a statement at the time that he was “particularly distressed” by Mattis’ departure and urged the President to “select a leader who shares Secretary Mattis'” view of US global leadership.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to McConnell as one of the lawmakers who has discussed their opposition to the President’s withdrawal of troops in Syria with Pence’s office. This story and headline also have been updated to reflect a statement from McConnell’s office that The Washington Post op-ed published Friday and the phone call with Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday occurred independently of each other.