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 TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 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 TillisDemocrats spend big to put Senate in play Group of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' The real US patent 'crisis' MORE (R-N.C.) said.

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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.”

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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 ReedGabbard calls for congressional inquiry over Afghanistan war report Gillibrand demands hearing following release of 'Afghanistan Papers' Republicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members 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 ShaheenSenate panel advances Turkey sanctions bill despite Trump objections Overnight Defense: Trump leaves door open to possible troop increase in Middle East | Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty Putin offers immediate extension of key nuclear treaty 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 HeinrichSenators want FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics This week: House to vote on Turkey sanctions bill 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 InhofeLankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Gabbard calls for congressional inquiry over Afghanistan war report 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 RoundsSenate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days Senate approves stopgap bill to prevent shutdown Hillicon Valley: Facebook launches 'News Tab' | Senate passes bill to take on 'deepfakes' | Schumer outlines vision for electric cars 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 CramerRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Senate braces for brawl on Trump impeachment rules GOP senator blocks Armenian genocide resolution 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?”