Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, waits to participate in a mock swearing-in ceremony in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, as the 116th Congress begins. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Yesterday, Mitt Romney gave a floor speech in the Senate on the situation in Syria. Perhaps to the surprise of no one, Romney used the opportunity to lambaste President Trump.
I’m going to take the key elements and address them.
Let me briefly recount what’s happened in the past seven days since the U.S. announced our withdrawal. The Kurds, suffering loss of life and property, have allied with Assad. Russia has assumed control of our previous military positions, and the U.S. has been forced in many cases to bomb some of our own facilities to prevent their appropriation by Russia and Turkey.
This misrepresents the entire situation. The Kurds in question, those affiliated with PKK/YPG, are not uniquely allied to the United States. They have been allied with Assad and Russia and Iran since the very beginning. Why? Because fighting ISIS lets them build up brownie points with the Damascus regime, whatever that ultimately ends up being, in attempting to gain some degree of autonomy within the borders of Syria. The people being lambasted in the media as “Turkish backed militias” are actually the Free Syrian Army who are also armed and supported by us. The bases we’re evacuating are not “our bases.” They aren’t covered by a Status of Forces Agreement or any kind of treaty or executive agreement. They are combat outposts in an area where, not very long ago, most of Congress agreed we had no legal authority to be.
Further, the ceasefire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally. Adding insult to dishonor, the Administration speaks cavalierly, even flippantly—even as our ally has suffered death and casualty, their homes have been burned, and their families have been torn apart.
We know the truth about our Kurd allies. They lost 11,000 combatants in our joint effort to defeat ISIS. We dropped bombs from the air and provided intelligence and logistics behind the lines. The Kurds lost thousands of lives. Eighty-six brave Americans also lost their lives so tragically.
These Kurds voluntarily entered into the fight against ISIS on their own behalf. They are patriots in their own eyes, the are not American hirelings. The question that is begged here is why we decided to expend blood and treasure, but particularly blood, in a conflict that not only has no national interest but, arguably, is actually working against our national interests. No one will claim that ISIS were good guys but look at their enemies: Russia, Syria, Iran, al-Qaeda.
So, too, is the principle that we stand by our allies, that we do not abandon our friends. The decision to abandon the Kurds violates one of our most sacred duties. It strikes at American honor.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Turkey is actually our ally in this mess. We have a mutual defense pact with them. The Kurdish forces they are fighting are either PKK (a US-designated terrorist group) or their open allies. How was our honor upheld by agreeing to this in the first place? Why does honor demand that we throw more blood and treasure into an effort to prop up a group we are at the same time pledged to eradicate?
Some have argued that Syria is simply a mess, with warring groups and sub groups, friends and allies shifting from one side to the other, and thus we had to exit because there was no reasonable path for us to go forward. Are we incapable of understanding and shaping complex situations? Russia seems to have figured it out. Are we less adept than they? And are our principles to be jettisoned when we find things get messy?
Just a reminder that the Russians stood aside and let the Turks kick-ass on these same people in 2018 and were also accused of abandoning their allies…and now the Russians are strategic geniuses for doing what Romney thinks is dumb today. Romney should consider that we jettisoned our principles when we chose to ally ourselves with a terrorist organization against a NATO ally.
I simply do not understand why the Administration did not explain in advance to Erdogan that it is unacceptable for Turkey to attack an American ally. Could we not insist that together we develop a transition plan that protects the Kurds, secures the ISIS prisoners, and meets the legitimate concerns of Turkey as well? Was there no chance for diplomacy? Are we so weak, and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey?
Throughout this hogwash, Romney manages to ignore some salient facts. First, Turkey has legitimate interests in what happens in northern Syria because the PKK has used that area as a safe haven from which to run operations into Turkey. And they’ve done this with the assistance of Syrian intelligence. There are only about two thousand US troops in Syrian Kurdistan and they are resupplied from…Turkey. While it is hugely impressive to bloviate about telling Turkey what is unacceptable, one would think they also have the right to do the same. And we are weak in this particular situation because what is at stake is something that Turkey sees as critical to its national security where pan-Kurdish nationalism represents an existential threat to it. Our involvement there, on the other, hand is at best a double-edged sword and most likely it is a decided negative as it embroils us in what is becoming a regional civil war and makes us into allies of an international terrorist group. To further confuse matters, we are also “allies” of the Kurdistan Regional Government which considers the PKK/YPG as hostile.
That Kurdish nationalism is a destabilizing influence in the region is not news. In fact, back in 2007 a candidate to be the GOP nominee for president made just that observation:
Today, the nation’s attention is focused on Iraq. All Americans want U.S. troops to come home as soon as possible. But walking away now or dividing Iraq up into parts and walking away later would present grave risks to the United States and the world. Iran could seize the Shiite south, al Qaeda could dominate the Sunni west, and Kurdish nationalism could destabilize the border with Turkey. A regional conflict could ensue, perhaps even requiring the return of U.S. troops under far worse circumstances.
It is really hard to take Romney’s speech as much more than an attempt to raise his own personal profile. To what end, I have no idea. But we have been told that Romney is trying to put together a donor network to fund a primary challenge to President Trump.
I’d be the last person to say the situation we face in the region is easy, it isn’t. President Trump inherited a foreign policy that for eight years had focused on granting political and territorial concessions to Iran as a way to try to create a regional counterweight to radical Sunni Islam. To that end, Iraq was abandoned. We also embarked on a program of trying to replace Arab dictators with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups. We did that in Libya and Egypt. We tried to do it in Syria and failed. The conflagration we set off on that misadventure is what has created the current mess. President Trump had the choice of doubling down on a policy that not only had failed but as to which no one could even describe what a success would look like…or washing his hands of it. He made the right decision. Mitt Romney, I think knows that. Because 2019 Mitt Romney knows that 2007 Mitt would never have allowed us to get involved in this crap.