Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing

Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing
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Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee emerged Thursday from a closed-door briefing on the Trump administration’s Syria policy with outstanding questions about the president’s plan for a withdrawal.

Several GOP senators exiting the meeting offered a more tempered response to the proposed withdrawal after signs it is being slowed. Many Republicans had vocally opposed the withdrawal when President TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE announced it in December, when he said troops were "coming back now."

“I think there’s got to be some level of conditions with this withdrawal. If it’s just purely time-based, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDemocratic challenger leads Tillis by 1 point in North Carolina poll GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner MORE (R-N.C.) said.

Asked if he was satisfied the administration is not going forward with a hasty withdrawal, he said, “Not yet. Need more information.”

The Armed Services panel was briefed on the withdrawal Thursday by John Rood, the under secretary of Defense for policy; Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, the director of strategy, policy and planning for the Joint Staff; and Maj. Gen. Michael Groen, director of intelligence for the Joint Staff.

The briefing comes roughly three weeks after Trump announced he was withdrawing U.S. troops in Syria who are fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

At the time, Trump said the withdrawal would be immediate, with officials saying it would happen within 30 days.

But officials later pushed the timeline back to four months. Then, this past week, national security adviser John Bolton laid out conditions for withdrawal that could push the departure back even longer, including the defeat of ISIS and a deal with Turkey for the protection of the Kurds.

Trump has denied that Bolton’s comments contradicted his initial announcement, tweeting Monday that they were “no different from my original statements” and that “we will be leaving at a proper pace.”

But the morphing statements from the administration left lawmakers searching for clear answers.

On Thursday, Democrats on the Armed Services Committee appeared no more satisfied after the briefing that the administration has a strategy for Syria.

Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedTrump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions Overnight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Shanahan drama shocks Capitol Hill, leaving Pentagon rudderless MORE (R.I.), the top Democrat on the panel, would not discuss the briefing specifically, but said in general, “I don’t think they have a strategy.”

Committee member Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenDemocrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill after Mnuchin announces delay MORE (D-N.H.) said she heard nothing new in the briefing and that the administration has not sufficiently backtracked on its withdrawal proposal for her.

“It’s a major foreign policy blunder because not only does it abandon the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces, but it leaves Russia and Iran to expand their influence in Syria," she said.

Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichOvernight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan Democratic senators want NBC primary debate to focus on climate change Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' MORE (D-N.M.) said there is “a lot of confusion,” while Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he is still “deeply concerned” and “disturbed” on the effects on U.S. interests.

“Clearly the withdrawal is precipitous and extremely dangerous,” he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the panel appeared somewhat assuaged by the briefing.

Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions Trump says he intends to nominate Esper to lead Pentagon The Hill's Morning Report - Trump's reelection message: Promises kept MORE (R-Okla.) said he is convinced the withdrawal will be conditions-based.

“I still believe it’s conditions based, regardless of what some rhetoric might have led some people to believe contrary,” he said.

Inhofe said that Trump “realizes that he’s not going to do something that we’re not ready to do, that we’re not equipped to do. And so I believe that will happen. I’ve gotten that assurance a lot of times, including in this meeting.”

When the withdrawal was announced, Inhofe expressed concern about protections for the Kurds going forward. On Thursday, he said he believes the Kurds will be “well taken care of.”

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsHouse panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa August recess under threat as yearly spending bills pile up MORE (R-S.D.) said the military is focusing on making sure ISIS is defeated territorially before the withdrawal and that the departure is “as safe as possible” for U.S. troops.

“I don’t think it’s a hasty withdrawal. I think they’ve been told to do it with due process, or I think they called it ‘alacrity,’” he said.

Still, he said there are outstanding questions about what happens when U.S. troops leave.

“I think there’s still going to be a lot of questions about whether or not our allies are going to be able to handle the internally displaced individuals along the Jordanian border, along the Turkish border, and how we resolve those issues,” he said. “I think that’s very important part of the long-term success of maintaining or at least continuing to stop the spread of ISIS in that region.”

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions The Hill's Morning Report — Trump pushes Mexico for 'significantly more' as tariffs loom Overnight Health Care: Liberals rip Democratic leaders for writing drug pricing bill in secret | Dems demand answers from company that shelters migrant kids | Measles cases top 1,000 MORE (R-N.D.), who is in his second week in the Senate, said he is concerned about protection for Kurdish forces once U.S. troops leave, but that he is comfortable with the planning underway now.

“I don’t want to say I’m quite satisfied, but I’m at least encouraged that that’s all part of the strategy,” he said. “It’s just not simply get out of here and remove all personnel and that’s the end of it.”

But he said he has questions he thinks can only be answered by Trump himself.

“I think his orders were rather specific, and while he provided some leeway in how quickly the withdrawal takes place and things like that, it is clear he is asking for a withdrawal,” he said. “So my question probably for him would be, can you foresee conditions changing that would cause you to change your mind?”