Sullivan took a stand against Trump’s withdrawal from Syria border. Now he says Trump had no good options

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan speaking at the AFN convention at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, October 19, 2019 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan does not usually criticize President Trump, but two weeks ago he denounced the president’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria. Now, though, Sullivan has softened his stance. He says he’s learned more and believes Trump had no better option, at least at first. 

Trump announced the initial troop withdrawal Oct. 6 after talking to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Democrats, and many Republicans, were quick to call it a bad move. Sullivan issued series of tweets the next night to condemn the decision. He said it would allow Turkey to invade. Sullivan also called it an abandonment of our Kurdish allies.

Then, late last week Sullivan and other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee attended a Pentagon briefing. Sullivan says it changed his perspective.

“Our military leaders were convinced that Turkey was going to invade with a major conventional force, over 20,000 troops,” Sullivan said in an interview after the classified briefing. “They were convinced that was going to happen regardless of what was going to happen, regardless of what transpired between the president and Erdoğan in their phone call.” 

The U.S. had about 50 special forces in the border area. Sullivan says the president had no good choices: If they stayed, they’d be in harm’s way. If they fought, they’d be attacking a NATO ally. 

“Or do you remove them, for their safety,” Sullivan said. “So that was the initial decision, which was a tough decision.” 

And Sullivan disagreed with it – at first.

“I mean to the extent they knew the Turks were coming – Again, you learn more in these briefings,” he said.

Sullivan remains critical of the decision Trump announced a few days later, to remove 1,000 U.S. troops, essentially leaving Syria entirely. Sullivan said the power vaccuum empowers Russia and Iran, and risks another rise of ISIS terrorism. 

“I do think the calls to kind of bring everybody home, pull up the drawbridges, and that’s going to make us safe – I think 9/11 proved that that’s not the case,” he said.

Sullivan said he’s not worried his condemnation of Trump’s decisions will harm his standing with the president.

“I have a good relationship with this administration,” he said. “But to think that you aren’t going to have policy differences on important issues, I think, is not realistic. The Senate could vote this week on a bipartisan bill to impose tough sanctions on Turkey, or on a House resolution condemning the troop withdrawal, but disagreements among Senate Republicans could derail both measures.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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