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U.S. Special Envoy To Syria Faces Lawmakers' Tough Questions On Withdrawing Troops


Senators had some tough questions today for the State Department's special envoy for Syria - questions about President Trump's decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, questions about the Turkish military offensive that followed and questions about how the Trump administration has dealt with it. And as this hearing took place in Washington, a fragile cease-fire between Kurdish and Turkish forces was ending in Syria. NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from Capitol Hill.

And, Tim, first, just tell us a little bit more about what you heard from the special envoy from Syria today.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Well, Ambassador James Jeffrey told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a number of shocking items. Firstly, he alleged that at least one war crime had been committed during this offensive.


JAMES JEFFREY: We would say that Turkish-supported - Syrian opposition forces who were under general Turkish command in at least one instance did carry out a war crime. And we have reached out to Turkey to demand an explanation.

MAK: The ambassador also acknowledged that he had not been told in advance that the president had decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Here's an exchange between the ambassador and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez.


BOB MENENDEZ: Were you consulted about the withdrawal of troops as was recently done?

JEFFREY: I personally was not consulted before the...

MENENDEZ: You were not consulted, even though you are the special envoy here in the context of Syria.

MAK: Jeffrey also told lawmakers that the toll - he told lawmakers the toll that the Turkish offensive has had on the mostly Kurdish militias in Syria that the United States has been aligned with. He said that there had been deaths in the, quote, "low hundreds." And as for the ISIS fighters that have escaped due to the chaotic situation, Jeffrey said that they numbered in the dozens but that the United States did not have an idea where they were or how to recapture them.

CORNISH: How did lawmakers - Republicans and Democrats - react to these developments?

MAK: So senators on both sides of the aisle have expressed frustration with the Trump administration's decisions. Here's Senator Mitt Romney who has been a leading GOP critic of the president on this issue.


MITT ROMNEY: Would it not have been preferable and desirable for us to have negotiated a posture with Turkey and our Kurdish allies such that we did not have the casualties which have resulted from Turkey coming in in a heavy way and bombing and killing our allies?

MAK: And Democratic Senator Menendez said that the troop withdrawal sent the wrong message - that you cannot trust the United States.


MENENDEZ: It's a hell of a way to send a global message that, in fact, don't fight for the United States because when they're finished with you, they'll let you die on the battlefield.

MAK: Under tough questioning from lawmakers, though, Jeffrey emphasized that the administration was using economic and diplomatic initiatives to try to improve the current situation.

CORNISH: So that's the administration approach. What have lawmakers proposed to do to improve things?

MAK: So there are bipartisan groups in both the House and Senate working together to put together sanctions that would hit the Turkish economy. But those efforts kind of stalled in the Senate, at least, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a speech today cautioning senators not to immediately turn to sanctions.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I caution us against developing a reflex to use sanctions as our tool of first, last and only resort in implementing our foreign policy.

MAK: So House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel said he was pursuing sanctions against Turkey, and that does appear to be moving forward. And also, we have lawmakers in both the House and Senate demanding briefings on the latest situation in Syria.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tim Mak.

Thank you for your reporting.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.