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Menendez: Withdrawal from Syria Without Success is Failure


WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered remarks on the Senate floor today in reaction to President Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, and his persistent failure to hold the Kremlin to account for its misdeeds and aggressions across the world.

Below are his remarks as delivered:

“Mr. President, yesterday Christmas came early to the Kremlin. 

First, we have Trump’s announcement to pull our troops out of Syria.  Second, the administration wants to delist three companies controlled by Oleg Deripaska, although, I am not sure that he has adequately relinquished control of those companies. And third, the administration has done nothing to respond to Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov and the Kersh Strait. 

This is a trifecta for Vladimir Putin and sends a global message that creates real concerns. Christmas has indeed come early to Moscow. 

The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from Syria lacks any strategy, is foolhardy, and puts U.S. security in the Middle East, including our ally the State of Israel, at great peril.  This is not simply an error, it’s dangerous.  It’s dangerous. 

Now, let me be clear:  withdrawal from Syria without success is failure.

American credibility will take a horrible hit if the President moves forward with this decision.  

As a country we have said that Assad, who has butchered his people, can’t stay in power.  Well, Assad is likely to stay in power into the foreseeable future. 

Second, we have said that we cannot leave Syria because we have strategic interests.  By leaving, and doing so precipitously, the President is willing to leaving these strategic interests the hands of Iran and Russia, and Moscow will be given a solid foothold in the Middle East- something it has aspired to for some time and now it will have. It will have developed bases there and it will have unfettered determination as to what to do.

Third, this move will strengthen Iran’s ability to attack Israel. 

We are entering a very dangerous time as it is increasingly clear to all, including man of my Senate Republican colleagues and especially our international allies and adversaries that this president is completely incapable of addressing our security challenges.  Only in Donald Trump’s parallel alternate universe has ISIS been defeated.  There is no one who would suggest that that is reality at this point. We have made gains, we have had successes, but they have not been defeated.

His erratic decision-making indeed poses a great threat to our security interests.

Trump tweeted that Russia is “not happy” about his decision to withdraw our forces from Syria.

Well, I guess he missed President Putin’s end of the year press conference, where, in his own words, he showed this morning that Russia is indeed thrilled with this abdication of U.S. leadership. 

I worry that we are sending a global message as well if this plan is executed. The Kurds have been the most significant fighting force on our behalf and in our interests in Syria. They have been our partners.  By pulling out we are abandoning them. Turkey will come in and will seek to destroy them. They’ll be hit not only by Turkey, but they’ll be hit by Assad, and they’ll be hit by others. Imagine the message that sends to other potential partners around the world.  Those who we say, “fight with us. Fight for us,” instead of sending our sons and daughters. The message is - once the US is done using you, we will abandon you.  We cannot afford this message.  Any other place in the world where we want people to fight with us, or for us, and carry the burden of being on the front lines so our sons and daughters are not in harm’s way -- they are going to look at this moment and say no way.  The will say that the U.S. will abandon us.  They will say that the U.S. will leave us on the battlefield to die.

As someone who has voted against the deployment of U.S. troops elsewhere, I don’t take these issues lightly.  I want our sons and daughters to come home as soon as possible. But by withdrawing these forces now, with no strategy, the U.S. is placing our security and that of allies at grave risk. And the sacrifices that have been made by our troops will have been lost.

Russia has entered into this war in Syria in an unholy marriage with Iran.  One, yes, was to prop up Assad.  But also to gain a tactical vantage point on Israel’s northern border.  Our withdrawal leaves a vacuum that Iran will fill, putting Israel at even greater risk. To believe that we can outsource our allies’ interests to Russia, and that Russia will tell Iran to leave Syria is ridiculous.  Iran is not a simple agent of Russia in this regard. Iran has shed its own blood and national treasure in pursuit of its interest, both to prop up Assad, and to have a vantage point on the northern border of Israel – another place to strike at Israel. It’s not going to give that up simply because Putin says to leave. Anyone who believes that has a clear misunderstanding of the realities of this relationship.

Completely withdrawing the U.S. from Syria, at this moment, with no strategy in place, signals to the region and to the world that we are willing to cede our interests to Putin,  to Iran and to others who will exploit this leadership vacuum.

President Trump has been silent in the face of egregious behavior from Saudi Arabia, behavior that this chamber spoke to in a unanimous way. He has no strategy for securing our interests around the Middle East or the world. It is all too clear who is winning.

The Kremlin attacked Ukrainian ships and captured Ukrainian sailors nearly a month ago.  Those vessels and sailors remain in Russian hands.  They are hostages.  Hostages, who were taken from the high seas in international waters, in violation of international law.  And what has the administration done?  Canceled a meeting with President Putin.  Trump canceled a meeting. That’s it. 

Trump has not rolled out new sanctions on those responsible for the attack. 

Trump has not increased U.S. and NATO presence in the Black Sea, in order to preserve international maritime passage for all. 

Trump has not announced new security assistance for the Ukrainians. 

One month has passed and President Putin has felt zero pressure to release these sailors.

Zero pressure ease tensions in the Kerch Strait. 

Zero pressure to negotiate an end to the war in the Donbas or return Crimea to Ukraine. 

In fact, Putin seems quite at ease.  His yearly press conference earlier today was a victory lap.  He is already prodding President Trump, welcoming the evacuation from Syria and calling for President Trump to stand by his campaign commitment to also withdraw from Afghanistan. 

He’s doing it purposely to see if he can elicit the same reaction he has elicited in Syria.

This retreat has left Vladimir Putin with the glow of victory.

He is winning in Syria. 

He is winning with Turkey. 

He is winning in Ukraine. 

And Trump wants to take our players off the field.

And this misguided withdrawal from Syria drives that point home. 

Putin’s control of Trump came into sharp focus yesterday.  I urge our Republican colleagues to see this for what it is.  The small price that Putin paid to interfere in our national election has paid off in Syria.  It has paid off in Ukraine.  And the American people are paying the ultimate price.  This is a dangerous time and our security lies in the hands of a president who I will respectfully say is clearly not up to the task.

I have called on this Administration and the last to develop, present and execute a clear and comprehensive strategy to promote our interests in Syria. This means a comprehensive strategy to counter Iran and its proxy networks, who, from Hezbollah to the Houthis, have only grown stronger as this Administration continues to bungle its way through one foreign policy crisis to the next.

The president has the opportunity to reverse course and avoid a spectacular failure.  He should listen to his military and national security advisors, none of which ultimately recommended this course of action.  He should listen to our allies, none of which have recommended this course of action.  He should invest in alliances and international institutions that multilaterialize and strengthen our reach across the globe.   He should listen to this bipartisan chorus from Congress.  There have been voices on both sides of the aisle who said, “change course. This is a grave mistake.” He has an opportunity to avoid a grave mistake. 

I will repeat what I said yesterday at a press conference with Senator Graham and Senator Reed:

Withdrawal from Syria without success is failure. Simply withdrawing is not a success. Withdrawing without success, without honoring the sacrifices that have been made by our troops there, without honoring the sacrifices that have been made by our allies there, like the Kurds, without recognizing the enormous civilian casualties that will take place in the aftermath, without recognizing that we will leave a void for other particularly nefarious entities to ultimately fill that void, without recognizing that we create a risk for our ally the state of Israel on its northern border, without recognizing that at the end of the day our strategic interest will be totally lost in this regard – is indeed a great failure.

I hope the President takes this opportunity to change course, to listen to his national security and military advisors, and to chorus of bipartisan voices in the Senate, including those of us who are engaged in national security questions – whether myself, as the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or Senator Reed as the senior Democrat in the Armed Services Committee, or Senator Graham who sits on both on Armed Services and is the chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations of the Appropriations Committee. These are bipartisan voices, among other, who are making it very clear that this is a grave mistake. We have a chance to Not to make that grave mistake, and the consequences that flow from it.”