Top US elected officials launched harsh criticism against Turkey in a US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on US-Syria policy on Wednesday, December 9, 2020. In addition, a statement by two top Congressional leaders on foreign policy condemned Turkey’s recent actions, issuing a bipartisan statement that read, “We are gravely concerned by the threat Turkey’s increasingly provocative behavior poses to our decades-long bilateral relationship, to the NATO alliance, and to the region more broadly.”
“Erdogan has taken the country in a very bad direction in my view,” said Representative Jim Costa (D-CA) at the hearing. “It’s not the Turkey we knew two decades ago and frankly I’m not sure that they’re worthy of continuing to be a partner in NATO, given their actions in recent years.”
During the hearing, US Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn was questioned by Committee members on a wide range of topics, including the Caesar Sanctions, food insecurity, humanitarian aid to Syria, COVID-19 relief, military strategy, religious freedom, ISIS detainees, Iran, Russia, and the Assad government, as well as Turkish aggression, ambitions, and activities in the region. Every one of the most senior members of the committee took a critical stance on Turkey and its aggression against North and East Syria.
“In the Northeast, Turkey maintains its hold on territory gained in its October 2019 invasion, and continues to harass and displace Syrian Kurdish populations, which of course have been very loyal to the United States,” said Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY). Engel is retiring from Congress and leaving his post as the chairman of the prestigious congressional committee. His portrait will hang in the committee room to memorialize his foreign policy legacy.
Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the new chairman of the committee, asked questions about the “counter-productive action by Turkey and Erdogan” and how to protect North and East Syria from Turkey. “What do you think we should do to protect the individuals that have been working with us through thick and thin… the Kurds who were there with us and fought with us? What do you think that we can do collectively to make sure that there is not another unforeseen pullout that leaves them subject to attack by others, especially by Turkey?” he asked.
“The Turkish government has embraced some extreme elements of political Islam, sometimes forming alliances with those inspired by al-Qaeda and ISIS,” said Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA). “To what extent is the Turkish government working with al-Qaeda and ISIS forces or the progeny of those two organizations?” (In response, Rayburn denied the relationship, stating, “I have not seen a sign that Turkey is sponsoring ISIS.”)
“I was horrified when Turkey initiated a military offensive against Kurdish forces in Northeastern Syria,” said Representative Ann Wagner (R-MS). “I believe that the United States has a duty to prevent the genocide of the Kurds, contain ISIS so terrorists cannot re-group, and ensure any re-posititioning of US forces will promote stability in the region.”
“More than a year after the ceasefire resulted in the withdrawal of the Syrian Democratic Forces from the Syria-Turkey border, how has the Turkish incursion affected the situation on the ground in Syria, particularly regarding the safety of our Kurdish partners?” she asked.
In addition to these questions and comments made by lawmakers during the panel, Engel and Ranking Member Representative Mike McCaul (R-TX) issued a statement last week that read, “We strongly urge President Erdogan to put an end to Turkey’s provocative behavior so the United States and Turkey can once again enjoy a close and cooperative relationship built on mutual security interests, a strong commitment to NATO, and shared democratic values.” The statement mentioned specific provocative actions by Turkey, including Turkey’s October 2019 invasion into North and East Syria. Engel is the top-ranking Democrat and McCaul is the top-ranking Republican regarding foreign affairs in the House.
At the hearing, McCaul asked directly, “how can we help the SDF? …To see Turkey come and crush the very forces we’ve worked with is disturbing.”
Rayburn outlined three main public-facing policy objectives in US-Syria policy in the process of the hearing. First, the United States will do everything it can to continue the fight against ISIS and preserve the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Second, said Rayburn, “we must press for the withdrawal of foreign forces not present in Syria before 2011.” And thirdly, said Rayburn, the US will pursue the goal of “a lasting political solution to the underlying Syrian conflict consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.” The United States continues to promote UN peace talks mandated by UNSCR 2254, despite the continued exclusion of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), SDC, and SDF from the negotiating table.
In addition, the Caesar Act sanctions will continue to be US policy, said Rayburn, despite questions raised by US Congressmembers on the effectiveness of the sanctions.
Rep Susan Wild (D-PA) questioned whether the United States “should re-evaluate our sanctions policies towards Syria… in light of the unintended effects that the sanctions appear to be having on everyday Syrians’ food supply in areas controlled by the Assad regime.”
“I love the Caesar sanctions, as someone who is implementing them,” Rayburn said. “You are seeing things change on the ground. The Syrian regime did not dream that it would be at the end of 2020 and would have its currency crashing, its regime economy failing, and its resources that it uses to fund its war against the Syrian people dwindling the way it has. And I think the Caesar Act has played the fundamental, the central role in helping to bring that situation about.”
In the past year, the number of Syrians living in poverty rose over 80 percent of the population. The number of people facing food insecurity has risen by 1.4 million people in the past year, according to the United Nations. An estimated 9.3 million people in Syria are now food insecure, facing hunger each day.
Representative Gerald Connolly (D-VA) asked questions on the mechanisms for bringing about a political solution. “Are we confident that there’s any kind of mechanism in the near future in Syria that would accurately reflect the voice of the Syrian people in a free and democratic choice?” he asked.
Rayburn responded, “I think the mechanism that is outlined in [UN Security Council Resolution] 2254 is the best mechanism that we could hope for.” He did not address the exclusion of North and East Syria from the UNSCR 2254 talks.
“Well, good luck with that,” said Connolly. “I don’t see a lot of evidence that that’s working, but that’s a discussion for a different day.”