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Lawmakers from both parties are angry with Turkey for its military campaign inside Syria against Kurdish forces, and at President Trump for withdrawing U.S. forces. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., one of the lead authors of legislation that would sanction Turkey, tells Nick Schifrin that Trump's decision is having "a devastating impact" and has handed Russia "a lot more leverage in the region."
We return now to one of our main stories of the day, the escalating war in Syria following President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops.
Nick Schifrin is back with a lawmaker at the center of the response.
In Congress, there is bipartisan anger at Turkey for its campaign inside Syria, and at President Trump for withdrawing U.S. forces.
One of the lead authors of legislation that would sanction Turkey is Maryland Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen.
And he joins me now.
Senator, welcome to the "NewsHour."
We watched earlier today a video posted on Facebook of a Russian journalist walking through an empty U.S. base.
What is the impact, in your opinion, of President Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Northeastern Syria?
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-M.D.:
Well, Nick, it's a devastating impact, both in terms of Turkey now attacking the Syrian Kurds, who, of course, have been our main partner in the fight against ISIS, and now could well lead and will likely lead to a resurgence of ISIS.
Also, we have just handed Russia a lot more leverage in the region, as you just indicated. So, this is a disastrous decision. The Congress will be calling upon President Trump to reverse it, but calling upon him to reverse it is not enough. In my view, we need these bipartisan sanctions, if we're going to have any hope of influencing Turkey's misconduct in their attacks on the Syrian Kurds.
So, you mentioned bipartisan sanctions. They are co-sponsored by Republican Lindsey Graham.
They would, among other things, sanction senior Turkish officials, restrict their visas, target Turkey's energy sector, prohibit U.S. military sales to Turkey, and even require a report on the net worth of President Erdogan.
Why are those steps the best way to change Turkey's behavior today in Northern Syria?
Sen. Chris Van Hollen:
Well, they will also include sanctions against two Turkish government-controlled banks, including the Halkbank, which is in the news today, just an indictment brought down against it, because what we need to do is say to Turkey that you're going to feel economic pain unless you stop your aggression against the Syrian Kurds and pull back your forces and your proxies.
Look, the reality is that by withdrawing our 100 Special Forces, President Trump has essentially taken away a lot of the leverage we had in the region. But sanctions is our next best opportunity to influence what's going to happen there in the days ahead to protect our Syrian Kurdish allies and to try to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, which is guaranteed, if the Turk — if the Syrian Kurds essentially have to spend all their time fighting Turkey, instead of fighting ISIS.
You mentioned that there are only about 100 U.S. special operations forces in this area. President Trump called that a policing effort. They were on a stabilization effort.
He said, we don't need to do that kind of effort. And he also announced that Turkey would feel pain for their incursion into Syria. He's announced sanctions, as you know. And, of course, Vice President Pence will be on his way to Ankara soon.
Why are those steps not enough?
Well, first of all, those 100 Special Forces were the Special Forces embedded with our Syrian Kurdish allies. And they were what was stopping Turkey from launching this attack on our partners.
So, when Trump decided to withdraw those Special Forces, he essentially green-lighted Turkey's actions.
With respect to sending Pence and the announcement yesterday on sanctions, this is like a peashooter, right? He announced some sanctions on Turkish steel.
The reality is, Turkish steel exports to the United States represent about one-fourth of 1 percent of all of Turkey's exports. So that's not a serious response.
And the president still says he's going to meet with President Erdogan here in Washington in November. I mean, what kind of signal does that send?
So that's why it's important that Congress act on a bipartisan basis. You have got a lot of momentum to stand up for our Syrian Kurdish allies, to stand up against ISIS. And we're going the use whatever tools are at our disposal.
They are not perfect tools, but they're the best we have got right now.
Military officials I talk to acknowledge a level of anger among those special operations forces soldiers inside of Syria for withdrawing and leaving Kurdish partners.
But they argue, strategically, that Turkey is more important than Kurdish partners. Turkey is a NATO ally since 1952.
Are you worried about the consequences of a sanctions bill like the one you're advocating on an ally on Turkey, whose cooperation is vital in so many areas?
Well, a couple points.
One, these sanctions would be lifted if Turkey ends its aggression against our Syrian Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS. So, Turkey has it within its power to relieve the sanctions that would take effect under this bill.
Second, under President Erdogan, you have seen Turkey really take positions inconsistent with NATO priorities. For example, they just recently took delivery of the Russian S-400 air defense system. The United States and NATO said that that would put NATO pilots at risk, because we want to use the advanced F-35 fighter.
Turkey thumbed their nose at us. They took delivery of that system. And so we have had to discontinue our partnership with the F-35 with Turkey. That also is a trip wire for U.S. sanctions.
So Turkey, under President Erdogan, has taken a number of steps that undermine its role and responsibilities in NATO. And we can't just sort of say, OK, Turkey, whatever you want. We need to insist that Turkey be a full partner in NATO and a full partner in the fight against ISIS.
And, as you know, Turkey allowed ISIS fighters to transit its territory many years ago. They looked the other way while ISIS grew in strength. And it was the Syrian Kurds who were our partners there, not the Turks.
And so killing our partner — allowing Turkey to kill our partners in the fight against ISIS also sends a message that we're an unreliable partner. So, the United States has to, for its own national security, hold Turkey to account here.
Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, thank you very much.
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