U.S. TROOP WITHDRAWAL FROM SYRIA; Congressional Record Vol. 164, No. 200
(Senate - December 19, 2018)

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[Pages S7881-S7884]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]

                    U.S. TROOP WITHDRAWAL FROM SYRIA

  Mr. RUBIO. Mr. President, earlier today, this morning, the 
administration announced the intent to remove all American troops--not 
a large presence, but all Americans troops--from Syria. I want to be 
clear, as I have been all day about this, that I believe it is a 
catastrophic mistake that will have grave consequences for the United 
States, for our interests, and our allies in the months and years to 
come. I want to take a moment to come here and explain why.
  The rationale behind the decision we were given today by the 
administration is that there is no longer a need for U.S. presence in 
Syria because ISIS has been defeated. Just a week ago, the President's 
own envoy to the global coalition on ISIS said this, and I want to 
quote from the statement that he gave last week to the press. He said:

       [T]he end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative. 
     Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. We know that once 
     the physical space is defeated we can't just pick up and 

  This was a quote from the President's own envoy to the global 
coalition on ISIS--not 6 months ago, 6 days ago. We don't have time 
here or I could take up all the time of the Senate to outline statement 
after statement from military and diplomatic officials in the 
administration basically echoing the same point.
  The point that we are making is this. ISIS still controls territory, 
particularly, in the Euphrates River valley of Syria. From the 
territory they still control, they generate money, they control the 
population, and they produce propaganda videos. Even if that is taken 
away, ISIS is on its way to turning into an insurgency--meaning, no 
longer an organization that

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controls vast spaces of land or has a capital city--an insurgency like 
we saw in Iraq, an insurgency like what al-Qaida operated like and 
continues to operate like. Insurgencies in many ways are even harder to 
defeat because they don't wave a flag and tell you where they are, 
because they meld into the population by day and then wreak havoc and 
suffering by night.
  I am not here to deny there hasn't been true progress made against 
ISIS. There absolutely has. If you look at what ISIS had, what ISIS 
controlled when this administration began and where they are today, 
this has been a substantial achievement, but we have to finish the job. 
The job is not finished.
  Why has ISIS's presence in Syria been degraded? It is because the 
United States, with a very limited military presence--we are not 
talking Afghanistan here with tens of thousands of troops. We are not 
talking Iraq here with a massive surge. We are talking about a very 
capable but light footprint of American primarily trainers and people 
there to assist, although they most certainly can fight and have done 
so in the past.
  Working alongside a ground force made up of the Syrian Democratic 
Forces--primarily Arabs--and the Kurdish forces from the YPG, who are 
highly capable fighters from the Kurds, they have been on the ground 
fighting with our assistance and our direction and sometimes our direct 
involvement against ISIS in the Euphrates River valley. They are the 
reason why in that part of Syria ISIS's control has rapidly degraded. 
They are the reason, but they are the ones fighting. That has been a 
difficult thing to achieve because the No. 1 objective of the Kurds is 
to protect Kurdish cities and towns in northern Syria.
  There is a longstanding dispute between the Kurds and Turkey. There 
is a Kurdish organization in Turkey, and then there is one affiliated 
with them housed in northern Syria and in cities that are Kurdish 
cities. Their No. 1 priority is maintaining their cities. That is what 
they care about the most. Getting them to actually take time out from 
that interest and confront ISIS was not easy. It has been an enormous 
achievement to partner and colocate with them in fighting and in 
degrading ISIS in that area.
  As I said, it has not been easy because ISIS is not their top 
priority. Their No. 1 priority is maintaining control of the Kurdish 
towns and cities in northern Syria and, more importantly, preventing 
Turkey and the Turkish military from taking it from them.
  They have been threatening to pull out of this ISIS effort for a long 
time, most recently when Erdogan went around saying: I am on the verge. 
I am going to invade. I am coming in. Any day now I am going after the 
Kurds in Syria.
  We already knew that if that happened, many of these YPG forces--the 
Kurds--would abandon the fight on ISIS and immediately be pulled into 
defending the Kurdish cities. Now that are we are pulling out, now that 
we are retreating, now that we are abandoning this effort, I can 
guarantee you that the Kurdish forces are going to leave. They are 
going back to the Kurdish areas to prepare to confront the Turkish 
military activity that they have announced and that could be coming at 
any moment. You know what that means? That means that there will no 
longer be anyone on the ground in the Euphrates River valley attacking 
  Let me tell you what comes next. Now the pressure is off from ISIS. 
Now they can really regroup. This is going to give them an enormous 
propaganda victory. As they take more and more territory, they are 
going to brag about it. That is going to help them recruit new fighters 
and resurrect themselves. It is going to give them more territory. It 
is going to give them access to more money.
  All of that is going to allow them to expand their insurgency plan. 
They are going to have more people, more money, and more territory to 
do it from because, again, the Kurds are going to leave. Now that we 
are leaving, they are leaving, and no one will be fighting ISIS on the 
ground in the Euphrates River valley.
  In fact, ISIS might even be able to restart its specialized military 
training in that area. We are allowing ISIS to come back. Before long, 
we are all going to be talking about ISIS again--producing videos, 
kidnapping people, beheading people, taking territory, terrorizing 
people, and doing it as an insurgency, which is even harder to fight, 
as I said earlier.
  Why is that happening? Who are the winners of all this? Let me tell 
you, I think the one winner here has been Erdogan. He has absolutely 
played us on this. It is truly stunning. He has spent months pressuring 
the United States to abandon the Kurds--diplomatically and in phone 
calls to the President and to others. He has spent months doing that. 
He has been putting pressure on the one side while also threatening 
military action on the other, in essence, saying: I am coming into 
Syria--the Turks--and I am going after the YPG--the Kurds--and I know 
U.S. troops are embedded alongside them, and you should be careful 
because we are coming in.
  He has been doing this for months. The goal of it the whole time was 
to separate the United States from the Kurds, to get us to break up 
this arrangement that we had with them to fight ISIS, and it worked. He 
has achieved it. It is truly unbelievable that he has been able to get 
us to back down.
  I want everyone to think about this additional complication. Turkey 
is a member of NATO. Article 5 of NATO says that if a NATO member is 
attacked, you all have to come to their defense and it is attack on all 
of us. While there is some wiggle room about what the appropriate 
response should be, the bottom line is that the Turks have in the past 
threatened to invoke article 5.
  Think about this for a moment. Think about for a moment if after 
being attacked, the Kurds--both in Turkey and in Syria--decide to 
attack back, as they will to defend themselves. Turkey is going to say: 
We are under attack from Kurdish forces and the YPG. We invoke article 
  I want you to think for a moment about what position that puts the 
United States in. We have a choice. We can stand behind our article 5 
commitment to NATO, but if we do so, we are going to have to help the 
Turks defeat--meaning kill--the very people who we were just colocated 
with today and yesterday and for months. The very people we have been 
working with to defeat ISIS for over 2\1/2\ years are now people that, 
if we allow article 5 to be invoked by Turkey, we are going to have to 
join in trying to defeat them--meaning kill.
  The other alternative is to not respect article 5 and not come to 
their defense, and then you have placed the entire NATO alliance in 
doubt because it will have been invoked for the second time in its 
history, and the United States didn't respond to it. We lose either 
way. We either help them kill the Kurds, our partners, as recently as 
today, or we ignore article 5. That sounds pretty dramatic, and there 
is some wiggle room as to what the appropriate response would be.
  Let there be no doubt, Erdogan is the kind of geopolitical hardball 
player to trigger this sort of response, and he has threatened to do it 
in the past--truly, unbelievable.
  Who is the other big winner? Russia. In fact, their embassy in the 
United States already put out a tweet celebrating the decision. Why? 
First of all, because America is now out. At some point, people are 
going to have to sit down and decide what is the future of a post-ISIS 
Syria. You know who will be at that table? The Turks will be at that 
table because they are going to have a military presence in northern 
Syria. The Iranians are going to be at the table because they are the 
closest allies Assad has. Assad will be at the table, and Putin will be 
at the table. Guess who will not be at the table? The United States of 
America. Vladimir Putin, of course, is celebrating this decision 
because America basically walked away and gave up its seat at the 
table. We have no presence there any longer, and we have turned over 
this country and its future and its meaning in the region to Vladimir 
Putin and Iran and Assad.
  Also, another reason why Putin is a big winner is because you can 
just imagine those meetings now when Putin goes to the Middle East and 
meets with the Egyptians and the Saudis and the Jordanians, and, 
frankly, even the Israelis. You know what he

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will say to them? He will say to them: I don't know why you are 
counting on America. I don't know why you are relying on America. They 
are unreliable.
  Vladimir Putin will say: Look at me. I stood by Assad. Even after the 
whole world came after him, I stood by him. I didn't retreat. Look at 
America. They abandoned these Kurds to be slaughtered by the Turks and 
maybe by the regime, and you are going to put the future and the 
security of your country in the hands of an unreliable and erratic 
partner like the United States?
  It is a huge victory for Putin in that regard.
  By the way, put yourself in the position of the Kurds facing an 
onslaught from the Turkish military.
  You have now given them two choices. They can partner up with Russia 
as their protector against Turkey or they can partner up with the 
regime in Iran. That is the choice we have left them with.
  The other big winners in all this are Iran and Hezbollah.
  For a long time, Assad has allowed Iran to use Syria as a transit 
point to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon so Lebanon can threaten and attack 
Israel. They will now be able to step up those efforts.
  There is no U.S. presence in Syria. There is no U.S. seat at the 
table, and you can fully expect that Iran is going to step up their 
engagement in Syria with Hezbollah.
  Let me tell you why that is a problem. I will get to that in a 
moment. It has to do with Israel, but here is the bottom line. You can 
fully expect now that Iran is going to step up its own presence through 
the IRGC and through Hezbollah and through the militias they have 
empowered in the region right on the border with Israel.
  Iran now has the ability to put weaponry and killers right across the 
Golan Heights, right on the border with Israel.
  The other big winner in all of this, of course, is Hezbollah. As I 
said, they now have expanded their area and their supply route.
  So I would be remiss if I didn't mention that with all this talk of 
ISIS, there is still an al-Qaida presence in Syria. They were called 
Nusra Front. Now it is Hurras al-Deen. They can change their name all 
they want, it is al-Qaida. They have operatives in Syria, and al-Qaida 
spends a lot of time planning external operations. We thank our men and 
women in Homeland Security, in the military, in our security systems 
and intelligence systems for protecting us, but al-Qaida spends all day 
long plotting and thinking about how to strike the United States around 
the world and here in the homeland, and the lack of a U.S. presence in 
Syria means that the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, Hurrus al-Deen, now has 
the ability to operate in a space that is even more desirable than what 
they have today.
  The last winner in all this is surprising because you may ask: What 
does it have to do with Syria? It is China. You can just imagine the 
meetings now that China is going to be having throughout Asia. You have 
all these countries in Asia which see this sort of growing conflict 
between the United States and China, and they are trying to figure out 
how do we stay out of this fight, but if we are forced to pick, which 
side do we pick? They prefer us. We are more reliable. We are more 
capable. We believe in democracy and human rights and respecting them 
and that sort of thing, but China in those meetings is going to say: 
America is a power in decline. America is unreliable. America is 
erratic. The same argument that Putin is going to use in the Middle 
East and in Europe is the argument China is going to use against us all 
over the world and particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
  Those are the implications of these kinds of decisions. They will 
increasingly go to places like Japan and South Korea and others and 
say: You know, do you really want to put all your eggs in the American 
basket because they are an unreliable ally. Look at what they did to 
the Kurds in Syria.
  Now, of course, there are losers, and obviously Israel, in this part, 
is one of them. The statement from the Prime Minister of Israel is 
pretty telling. He said: It is an American decision. We are not going 
to interfere with it, but we are going to do whatever it takes to 
protect our interests in this area. Translation? They are going to step 
up their attacks. They are already conducting strikes inside Syria. 
Every time they see a dangerous rocket system moving toward Hezbollah, 
anytime something that looks like it could threaten Israel from Syria 
pops up, they go in there, and they blow it up.
  They are going to have to step up those efforts now because as those 
efforts increase, they are going to have to get more aggressive, and 
eventually they are going to kill Iranians. They are going to kill a 
lot of people in Hezbollah, but they are going to kill Iranians, and 
the Iranians are going to respond. Hezbollah is going to respond, and 
they are probably eventually going to respond by launching a vast 
volume of rockets coming over from Lebanon, and Israel is going to have 
to respond to that.
  Suddenly, we have the next Israel-Hezbollah war, except this one is 
going to be much deadlier than the one 10 years ago because now 
Hezbollah has more rockets, better rockets that have longer range and 
precision in their guidance. So even if Israel has this incredible 
defense system, it can be overwhelmed by volume. It is such a small 
country. What do you think is going to happen when population centers 
in Israel cannot be protected from these attacks? Israel is going to 
respond, as they always have had to do in their self-defense, with 
disproportionate force, and we are going to have an all-out war 
potentially between Israel versus Iran and Hezbollah, and who knows 
where that leads.
  I assure you, the United States is going to be called upon to help in 
that regard, at a minimum, by supplying Israel and maybe more. Who else 
could that pull in? This is not a game. There are serious repercussions 
if you think forward about what could happen next and how quickly this 
could destabilize the region and how quickly the pullout of a small 
American presence could lead to a much larger one down the road.
  Ultimately, Israel is an enormous loser here because by the United 
States retreating, we have given the green light for Iran to expand its 
presence right on their border. This is the closest--other than Lebanon 
and Hezbollah--this is now the closest Iran has ever been to Israeli 
territory, just across the Golan Heights.
  So think about it for a moment. You are Israel. You have problems in 
Judea and Samaria with the Palestinian Authority, you have issues in 
Gaza, you have Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now you have Iran with a 
growing presence just north of you in Syria. You are encircled. This is 
the predicament this helps creates.
  By far, the biggest loser in this endeavor is the United States of 
America. We have surrendered our influence in the outcome of this 
conflict in Syria. At some point, nations are going to sit down and 
figure out what Syria looks like moving forward, and we will have zero 
role to play in it. It will be decided by the Turks and the Russians 
and primarily the Iranians and Assad, and we will have no role to play 
in it.
  We have also undermined other nations' trust in the reliability of 
the American alliance, and the implications of that are extraordinary. 
If you think about the world today and nations like Japan and South 
Korea and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, these are countries that either can 
immediately or may in the future decide they need nuclear weapons to 
protect themselves: South Korea from North Korea, Japan from China, 
Saudi Arabia from Iran, Egypt from Iran. The reason many of these 
countries have been willing not to develop nuclear weapons is because 
the United States has, in the case of South Korea and Japan, directly 
assured their security, and that has kept the peace.
  What happens when more and more nations develop weapons of mass 
destruction the way India and Pakistan have--about each other. Well, 
you have more weapons of mass destruction, and then it creates the 
possibility of miscalculation or, even worse, that a government--for 
example, in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt--is overthrown and some radical 
regime takes hold and they have nuclear weapons or they proliferate and 
sell it to people and that is used.
  This is far-fetched for some people. This is reality. This is how 
foreign policy should be made, not just thinking about what is in front 
of you today but what could happen and the chain of

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events that could be triggered by a decision. This is not a game. This 
is serious stuff.
  On top of all that, losing the trust of our allies and nations around 
the world, losing our influence in a solution in Syria--ISIS is going 
to reemerge. It is not going to be the same ISIS it was before, 
controlling vast amounts of territory, but I will tell you what, al-
Qaida never controlled vast amounts of territory. Operating from caves 
and hideouts throughout the Middle East, they carried out 9/11 and 
other threats against the United States and the homeland that were 
  ISIS is going to reemerge now. They are once again going to be able 
to recruit people. They are going to have an insurgency that is going 
to be able to strike and perhaps externally plot. They are going to be 
able, from that presence they have in Syria, to influence their 
affiliates everywhere from the Philippines to Central Africa, to other 
countries in the region.
  That is why I am here to tell you this is a catastrophic decision. 
Forget, for a moment, about no one being notified; it was just 
announced at the last minute. I haven't heard a single member of the 
administration--not one, not the Secretary of Defense, not the 
Secretary of State--who is going to own this decision? Who is willing 
to step forward and tell the American people or Congress, here is why 
we are making this decision, and here is the strategy it is in 
furtherance of? Someone explain that. It is important. The American 
people deserve to know. I haven't heard that today. We haven't heard it 
  We thought we had the outlines of some strategy here. All that has 
been taken away. Why are we doing this? What is the rationale and what 
comes next? What is the plan to keep ISIS from reemerging? What is the 
plan to keep Iran from growing its presence in Southern Syria and 
threatening Israel? What is the plan to deal with the al-Qaida element 
that already exists there? What is our role? What role are we going to 
play in a post-ISIS and post-al-Qaida Syria--and particularly as it 
relates to whether it can be used as a base of operations against our 
interests and our men and women in uniform stationed in the region. 
None of that has been outlined.
  Is anyone in the administration going to own this and explain it? 
Because so far we haven't heard it, and this is an important public 
policy decision.
  I hope I am wrong about all this. I hope this all works out, but it 
is not going to, and I am telling you, these are the kinds of decisions 
that define Presidencies. These are the kinds of mistakes that end up 
haunting a nation for years and years and years thereafter.
  It is the hard lesson of Iraq. It is the hard lesson of decisions 
made at other times in our history. I hope this can be reversed. I hope 
this can be reexamined because I honestly believe--put politics aside--
I honestly believe this is a catastrophic decision for America's 
national security interests. If this stands, we in this Congress and we 
as a nation are going to be dealing with the consequences of it for 
years to come.
  We will remember this day as the day that started it all. We will 
remember this day as a major blunder, in which by ignoring the advice 
of every diplomatic and military official who has spoken about this 
publicly for the last 2 years, we made a decision, for reasons that 
have not yet been explained, that triggered--that triggered--a series 
of events that no one foresaw at the time but proved to be much more 
dangerous and much costlier than anything we are doing there now.
  So I honestly and sincerely hope someone in the administration is 
listening and that there is a chance to reverse or amend this decision 
before it is too late.
  I yield the floor.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Kansas.