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The House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Trump’s troop withdrawal from Syria, making it look like Democrats are wedded to military intervention. Is there an alternative that protects the Kurds without the use of the U.S. military?

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GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.

The Democratic presidential candidates’ debate on Tuesday evening showed a mostly unanimous position among the candidates with regard to President Trump’s decision to pull out U.S. troops from Syria. Almost every one of the 12 candidates on the debate stage denounced the decision, saying that Trump was leaving U.S. allies, the Syrian Kurds, to be slaughtered by the Turks. The one dissenter among the candidates was Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who disagreed with how Trump was managing the withdrawal, but she also agreed with the overall effort of the U.S. to extricate itself from Syria. Here is a clip of former Vice President Biden and Representative Gabbard during the debate.

ANDERSON COOPER: Would you send American troops back into Northern Syria to prevent an ISIS resurgence and protect our Kurdish allies?

JOE BIDEN: I would not have withdrawn the troops and I would not have withdrawn the additional thousand troops who were in Iraq, which are in retreat now, being fired on by Assad’s people. And the president of the United States saying, “If those ISIS folks escape from the prisons they’re in, they’ll only go to Europe; it won’t affect us,” it has been the most shameful thing that any president has done in modern history. Turkey is the real problem here. And I would be having a real lockdown conversation with Erdogan and letting him know that he’s going to pay a heavy price for what he has done.

TULSI GABBARD: The slaughter of the Kurds being done by Turkey is yet another negative consequence of the regime change war that we’ve been waging in Syria. Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hand, but so do many of the politicians in our country from both parties who have supported this ongoing regime change war in Syria that started in 2011, along with many in the mainstream media who have been championing and cheerleading this regime change war.

GREG WILPERT: Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria has long been rejected by most Democrats and many Republicans. As a matter of fact, on Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan non-binding resolution, with an overwhelming vote of 354 to 60, condemning Trump’s decision. According to the resolution, the withdrawal is “beneficial to adversaries of the United States government, such as Russia, Syria, and Iran.” It also calls on president Erdogan of Turkey to immediately end military action in Northern Syria. A similar resolution was introduced into the Senate on Tuesday.

Joining me now to discuss what a better U.S. policy towards Syria might look like is Hassan El-Tayyab. He is the Legislative Representative for Middle East Policy of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Thanks for joining us again, Hassan.

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Thanks so much for having me, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So Syria seems to be one of those issues where Trump is being less hawkish than Democrats, at least that’s what it looks like at first. During the debate, Tulsi Gabbard characterized U.S. policy towards Syria as one of regime change. And Biden though rejected that, seemingly defending Obama’s Syria policy and saying that the U.S. is there to protect the people of Syria. Now, first, do you think that Democrats are being more hawkish than the president? And second, what, from a pro-peace position, is the problem with Trump’s withdrawal from Syria?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Well, there’s obviously a lot to unpack. It’s a complicated situation with a lot of moving parts. I will say to start off with though, Trump’s hasty withdrawal out of Syria without a negotiated solution, without multilateral diplomacy in place, created a lot of chaos and unnecessary violence. And that should be condemned. That said, an unauthorized U.S. military presence in Syria that lasts indefinitely should also be condemned. We should not be engaging in regime change war against Assad. We should not have military forces that haven’t been authorized by Congress in Syria, or anywhere for that matter. So I find fault in both approaches. And I really believe that there is no military solution, but multilateral diplomacy that brings everybody to the negotiating table is what’s needed for going forward.

GREG WILPERT: Now, peace activists and progressives are having a bit of a hard time with Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, I would say. On the one hand, they believe that U.S. should not have troops in Syria, as you say. But on the other hand, people don’t want the Kurds to be under attack from Turkey, as is happening right now. Now, given this dilemma between protecting Kurds with U.S. troops or not protecting them, what exactly is the alternative? Can you go into more detail about that? And in other words, what would be an anti-U.S. intervention position with regard to Syria? And perhaps we can divide this into longer term and short term. Let’s start with the short-term, what can be done?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Absolutely. So short-term, members of Congress and the administration should not oppose the Kurds working out a deal with the Assad government. That would create protection. It would end this power vacuum that was left by the U.S. withdrawal. So that’s number one. Number two is I think we need to condemn Turkey and their aggression here, and violations of international law. And the U.S. can do that by ending arms sales to Turkey and ending military weapons transfers. So military sanctions on Turkey, but also not getting in the way of a negotiated settlement between Kurds and the Syrian government.

GREG WILPERT: Now, the Trump administration, or Trump actually, himself, said quite explicitly that he is in favor of economic sanctions on Turkey. What do you think about that idea?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: I think broad-based economic sanctions are the exact wrong way to go. These sanctions would hurt innocent Turkish people. It could cut off the flow of food, fuel, medicine, hurt their economy. We don’t want to see that. We don’t want to hurt innocent Turks. That’s why we’re focused more on military sanctions. And just to kind of zoom out a little bit, the sanctions regime we have on Iran and Venezuela, this is kind of what the Trump administration is calling for. And they’ve done tremendous damage and killed thousands and thousands of civilians. And we don’t want that for innocent Turks. So, but again, moving forward, I think doing a rebuke through ending weapons transfers is the right way to go.

GREG WILPERT: And in the longer term, what do you think ought to be done, or what needs to be done?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Well, I think longer term we need to obviously end permanent U.S. military presence in Syria. That has not been authorized by Congress. If any member of Congress does think that we should have military presence in Syria, they need to get a specific AUMF relating to it, because right now there is none. Also, the U.S. needs to open up its doors to refugees. We need to end the Muslim ban. We need to raise the 18,000-person cap on refugees allowed into the country. We also need to re-designate the temporary protective status of Syrians living inside the U.S. So there’s obviously, this is a very complex issue, but we have to own up to our part in the bloodshed.

Now, for years before the Trump administration, we have been engaging in a regime change war against Assad. And I am not an Assad apologist, I have no love for that regime and the human rights violations. But what are we doing? What is our policy? We are arming, training, funding Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda and other extremist elements in Syria. And I think that is exactly the wrong kind of policy. It destabilizes Syria. It destabilizes Turkey. It destabilizes Jordan. And we need a better approach to this conflict.

GREG WILPERT: Now, with regard to Congress, as I mentioned, the resolution was passed with an overwhelming vote. Only 60 members of the House voted against the resolution. So I was trying to find out exactly who voted against it. They haven’t published it yet. But I’m wondering, who in the Democratic Party, if anyone, is actually currently working for the kind of solution that you’re proposing?

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: It’s still early stages. I think, in general, there are a lot of people that are focusing on the military sanctions on Turkey, and we are trying to support them to keep it narrowly focused on military sanctions, weapon sales, weapons transfers. And so I think there’s still time to amend some of this legislation that’s coming out. And again, it’s all early stages. There’s some legislation I saw, again early, early stages, that might actually remove U.S. nuclear weapons from Turkey. So I think we need overall just a rethinking of the situation, and to really force Congress to answer the question of: why are troops in Syria in the first place? Why are unauthorized U.S. military forces in Syria? We need to get back to basics. Article one, Section Eight makes it explicitly clear that only Congress has the power to declare war. And so, we should not be sending troops anywhere without a specific declaration of war.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, I think that’s a very good and important point that people keep forgetting about, that actually, this is probably not even legal to have U.S. troops in Syria at the moment. But we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Hassan El-Tayyab, Legislative Representative for Middle East Policy of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. thanks again, Hassan, for having joined us today.

HASSAN EL-TAYYAB: Thanks so much for having me.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Hassan El-Tayyab

Hassan El-Tayyab is the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s lead lobbyist on Middle East policy. He is also responsible for representing FCNL with the various coalitions that work on these issues.