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White House officials stand by Syria withdrawal, sanctions delay amid bipartisan pushback

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Members of President Trump’s Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, on Sunday defended the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria ahead of a Turkish military operation as well as a delay in sanctions against Ankara that have sparked bipartisan criticism.

Esper said the presence of U.S. troops near Turkey’s border with Syria would not have prevented Turkey’s advance into Syria.

{mosads}“I think they were fully committed,” Esper said of Turkey on “Fox News Sunday.” “We are not going to go to war, another war in the Middle East, against Turkey. … That’s not what we signed up for.”

Esper also pushed back against host Chris Wallace’s characterization of U.S. troops at the border as a “tripwire.”

“I’m not one to … classify them as a tripwire and sacrifice them, if you will,” he said.

He insisted the White House remains committed to working against the Turkish offensive.

“I would say what we’ve been saying. … We are doing everything we can to get the Turks to stop this egregious behavior,” he said.

Esper, meanwhile, confirmed on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the U.S. had withdrawn more forces than the 50 troops near the border between Turkey and Syria, saying the U.S. had pulled another 1,000 amid Ankara’s advance.

“And so we find ourselves as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies, and it’s a very untenable situation,” Esper told host Margaret Brennan.

Mnuchin also defended a delay in sanctions against Turkey on ABC’s “This Week.” Trump warned of the sanctions if Ankara treated Syrian Kurds, who aided the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, inhumanely.  

“Let me just say this is a complicated, developing situation. You have a NATO ally, on one hand, fighting against the Kurds, who were helping us with the fight against ISIS. We are in daily communications with Turkey, both at the Defense Department, the State Department, on very specific issues. We are ready to go on a moment’s notice to put on sanctions,” Mnuchin said.

Senators from both sides of the aisle also weighed in on Syria during the Sunday morning political shows.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Trump was faced with more than a “binary” choice and that had the U.S. remained in Syria, the president might have had to make a decision about possibly fighting Turkey, a NATO ally.

“I think the president at that point has a not so much a binary choice as a decision to make as to which friend, if you will, do we stand with in this circumstance?” Cramer said.

“I wish it had been different. I can tell you that. But I’m not sure the president had a lot of choices,” Cramer said. “We can’t be in the middle of every skirmish in the neighborhood.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is sponsoring bipartisan legislation to impose sanctions on Turkey with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), expressed frustration at the administration’s pace on “Fox News Sunday.”

“For God’s sake, what are they waiting for, right? People are being killed right now,” Van Hollen told Wallace.

“Our Syrian Kurdish allies are being killed right now. It looks like many of the ISIS detainees — there are about 10,000 fighters — are now possibly going to be able to escape. … They [the White House] look ridiculous right now, so that’s why it’s important that the Congress move forward on this front,” he added.

And Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force veteran, also blasted the withdrawal, saying that “we all know” a continued U.S. presence at the border would have prevented Turkey’s advance.

“To see this yet again, you know, leaving an ally behind, abandoning people that we frankly told that we were gonna be with is disheartening, depressing. Frankly, it’s weak,” Kinzinger said on “Face the Nation.” “I don’t see how it follows through on the president’s promise, his biggest promise in the campaign to defeat ISIS because I think it is going to resurge.”

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis also warned about unintended consequences from the move, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the Turkish invasion had thrown the region into “disarray” and that a potentially resurgent ISIS would benefit from the chaos.

“Obviously, the Kurds are adapting to the Turkish attacks. And we’ll have to see if they’re able to maintain the fight against ISIS. It’s going to have an impact,” Mattis told Chuck Todd on Sunday.

“The question is, how much?” he added.

Tags Adam Kinzinger Chris Van Hollen Chris Wallace Chuck Todd Donald Trump Jake Tapper James Mattis Kevin Cramer Lindsey Graham Mark Esper Steven Mnuchin Sunday shows

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