Members of the U.S. Congress from both major parties are growing frustrated over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to allow a vote on sanctions legislation aimed at punishing Turkey for its ongoing assault on U.S.-partnered forces in Northeastern Syria.
Turkish forces launched “Operation Peace Spring” against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on October 9.
Turkey considers the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) – the backbone of the SDF – to be inexorably linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a separatist insurgency within Turkey for decades and is classified as a terrorist organization by Ankara, Washington, and the E.U.
As hundreds of thousands of predominantly Kurdish residents fled the assault, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan maintained that he planned to “resettle” millions of mostly-Arab Syrian refugees in the cities taken from the SDF, leading to credible accusations of “ethnic cleansing.”
Turkey’s incursion into Syria was made possible by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces stationed with the SDF, ostensibly green-lighting Erdoğan’s operation.
Trump’s decision has outraged lawmakers from both parties, who say he abandoned an American ally, damaged American credibility, and is facilitating war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
More than 11,000 men and women from the SDF were killed during the U.S.-backed international campaign to destroy ISIS.
In response to the incursion, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill sanctioning the Turkish government on October 29 by a massive, veto-proof margin of 403-16.
Democrat Chris Van Hollen and Republican Lindsey Graham also introduced similar sanctions legislation in the Senate, but McConnell has so far refused to allow either bill to come to the floor for a vote.
“I’m absolutely confident that, like the House bill, the Senate bill would pass with an overwhelming, veto-proof majority,” Van Hollen said at an event hosted by the Washington Kurdish Institute on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
“Senator McConnell needs to stop shielding the president of the United States.”
Trump denied that he “green-lighted” the Turkish assault and threatened to “totally destroy the economy” of Turkey if Erdoğan crossed an unspecified line in his operation.
But the president has since championed a so-called “ceasefire” agreement struck by Vice President Mike Pence on a trip to Ankara in October and hosted Erdoğan for a friendly summit at the White House last week.
Drones, ISIS, and War Crimes
Recent reports from the ground in Northeastern Syria paint a grim picture that undermines Trump’s contention that the ceasefire agreement is “holding very well.”
“There is no ceasefire,” a doctor at a hospital in Tal Tamer told the Independent, describing a steady stream of patients arriving with wounds inflicted by an ongoing Turkish drone campaign.
Last week, doctors from the same hospital told The Globe Post’s sister publication, The Defense Post, that they had received over 600 wounded patients and had seen 170 dead since the beginning of the incursion. Most of the fatalities were civilians, they said.
Trump said on Weds that the Turkey-SDF ceasefire was “holding very well.”
But a surgeon at a local hospital told the @DefensePost he had just pulled a metal plate out of a boy’s chest. Turkey’s drones create wounds he’s never seen before. Most victims are civilians, many kids. https://t.co/2O4JAwqdv5
— Jared_Szuba (@JM_Szuba) November 15, 2019
The U.S. troops that Trump ordered to stand down have not been withdrawn from Syria but have instead been relocated nearby, with some ordered to seize control of local oil fields.
With U.S. forces looking on, Turkish-backed Islamist militias, which are reportedly comprised largely of Jihadist fighters, continue to threaten civilians in the region, particularly Kurds, Christians, and other minorities.
These militias have been videotaped summarily executing Kurdish civilians, a war crime.
“We hope to return home, but now we cannot. For sure they will kill us or kidnap us,” a Kurdish civilian told the Independent at a displacement camp, where women said they feared being taken as sex slaves by the militants.
With the majority of civilians having fled the border area, Turkey has said it has already begun to move other Syrian refugees into the homes of Kurds and other minorities, a violation of the right of return codified in international law.
A report from the Pentagon’s inspector general published Tuesday also warned that the Turkish operation would embolden what remains of ISIS, specifically warning that the SDF could be subject to attacks from “clandestine” terrorist cells aimed at freeing ISIS detainees.
‘Kowtowing’ to Turkey
While it’s unclear how Turkey will proceed from here, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn said Wednesday she’s concerned by reports that the operation will be extended in Kobani, a major city at the heart of the region’s autonomous, democratic political project.
“Putting sanctions in place is something we should do if they persist,” Blackburn said, calling the incursion “unacceptable.”
But McConnell has held his ground, claiming his opposition to the sanctions is based on concerns over American “strategic interests.”
Unlike in prior Congressional efforts to rebuke Trump’s foreign policy, there is no way for legislators to bring the bills to a vote in spite of McConnell’s objections, even if there is a decisive majority in favor of them.
For the first time since the passing of the War Powers Act in 1971, Congress approved a war powers resolution earlier this year ending U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, a clear rebuke to Trump’s policy toward the Kingdom and his failure to hold it responsible for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
But unlike the sanctions bills on Turkey, that resolution was “privileged,” meaning McConnell was powerless to stop a vote in the Senate. The resolution, however, was ultimately vetoed by Trump.
Beyond sanctions, others have suggested blocking arms shipments to Turkey as a way punish Erdoğam for the incursion, though shipments of F-35 fighter jets have already been suspended over Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems.
Speaking through a translator at the Washington Kurdish Institute event on Wednesday, Ilham Ahmed, the President of the Syrian Democratic Council – the political arm of the SDF – said she would send a message to McConnell in hopes of convincing him to support the sanctions.
She also told The Globe Post that although securing the region’s oil fields is important, “the natural resources of Syria are owned by the Syrian people,” not the United States.
In addition to supporting U.S. sanctions on Turkey, Ahmed is also hoping to convince American officials to support the SDC’s inclusion in the Geneva peace process over the objection of Turkey.
“The United States has supported us militarily but never politically,” she said. “Why is everyone kowtowing to the Turkish state?”