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 TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary 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 TillisObama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements On The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection 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 ReedOvernight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled Overnight Defense: Pompeo pressed on move to pull troops from Germany | Panel abruptly scraps confirmation hearing | Trump meets family of slain soldier 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 ShaheenThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: GoDaddy CEO Aman Bhutani says DC policymakers need to do more to support ventures and 'solo-preneurs'; Federal unemployment benefits expire as coronavirus deal-making deadlocks Overnight Defense: Pompeo pressed on move to pull troops from Germany | Panel abruptly scraps confirmation hearing | Trump meets family of slain soldier Shaheen, Chabot call for action on new round of PPP loans 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: 20 states sue over Trump rule limiting states from blocking pipeline projects | House Democrats add 'forever chemicals' provisions to defense bill after spiking big amendment | Lawmakers seek extension for tribes to spend stimulus money Lawmakers seek extension for tribes to spend stimulus money following Treasury delays The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time 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 InhofeSenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection 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 RoundsTrump goes viral after mispronouncing Yosemite Congress has a shot at correcting Trump's central mistake on cybersecurity Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection 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 CramerThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: iBIO Chairman and CEO Thomas Isett says developing a safe vaccine is paramount; US surpasses 150,000 coronavirus deaths with roughy one death per minute McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits Senate panel scraps confirmation hearing for controversial Pentagon nominee at last minute 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?”