On Thursday, a supermajority in the U.S. Senate voted 68-to-23 to procedurally advance an amendment by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that calls on the Executive Branch to certify to Congress that it has met conditions for guaranteeing the long-term defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda before reducing U.S. military forces in any significant way from operations in Syria or Afghanistan.
In a speech on the Senate floor, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, discussed the continuing threats faced by the United States from terrorist groups operating in Syria and Afghanistan, and on the risks that a hasty withdrawal of American forces from either country poses to our hard-won gains and the security of the United States and our allies.
Rubio said the following:
Mr. President, I come to speak about the amendment, the pending amendment we’re going to vote on in here in about 25 minutes and it is an amendment that says it is a mistake to proceed with withdrawal from Syria in the pace and scale that is currently proposed or that the White House has announced that they’re going to undertake. This is — what I’ll say here today is what I said initially about it, my position that I thought it was a bad idea. I said it then. I’ve said it to the President in a subsequent meeting. And I thought it was important to restate it here as we begin to vote since I believe this issue is going to be covered in the press more as a political issue than it is a foreign policy one. And it’s unfortunate that a lot of these issues are wrapped up as political decisions. These are not votes on political decisions. These are votes on the conduct of American foreign policy which oftentimes have no partisan lines but rather ideological in some cases or simply different ways to view an issue. I share the White House and the President’s desire that as quickly as possible, the key being as possible, that we end conflicts abroad. It’s in the best interest of our nation and our families and the families of the service men and women who are stationed abroad and involved in conflict zones that this be the case. The problem is that if you do so in the wrong way, you end up increasing dramatically the likelihood of a future conflict that will involve even bigger wars with an even higher investment of lives and resources to win.
If the United States and the anti-ISIS coalition is not in Syria and operating until ISIS is completely wiped out, there will be no sustained pressure on ISIS or on Al-Qaeda. and they will both grow back stronger and they will have the capability to plot against the homeland and American interests around the world. And that is something we cannot allow to happen. We cannot have that happen. Now some may say, well, we can target them. We just don’t have to have 1,500 or 1,800 special operators on the ground. We don’t need to do that. We can do it through the air and so forth. ISIS is becoming an insurgency. An insurgency is much different than a group with a flag that controls buildings and territory. Those people you can find them and you can strike them. An insurgency are people that blend into the population. By day they are a baker or accountant or a merchant, but in the evenings and at night, they are an ISIS fighter planting bombs and killing people. Insurgencies are very difficult to fight and almost impossible — if not impossible, to fight from simply air power. Which is why the situation in Syria has been so positive. 2,000 American servicemen, special operators, alongside thousands of Syrian Democratic Forces and Kurds who are primarily doing the ground fighting with our logistical support and air support have eroded ISIS’s control of territory in the country. But they have not eliminated them. And there is enough of them left that they can reconstitute itself. In fact, it’s in the process of doing so already. They are clearly capable of killing American servicemen, as they did a few days ago. And since that time, there have been a series of other IED attacks inside Syria, some of which could have killed Americans. This is a group that has talked about openly their desire to possess chemical weapons, which they could use at any moment potentially against Syrian Democratic Forces and Kurds in that area, and by the way putting directly in danger our remaining service men and women that are on site. This remains a dangerous group, capable of not just conducting attacks in Syria but potentially, especially if they have a safe haven abroad and here in the United States.
Let there be no doubt that this withdrawal, as currently structured, is a win perceptually at a minimum, but I believe in reality for Iran. Let’s begin in southern Syria, the areas of the border, Israel and Jordan. Our withdrawal means Iran will now — and their pro-Iranian forces that include Hezbollah militias — will now have even more operating space from which to target Israel. They will now be able to set up an even more reliable ground route in which they can send weaponry into Lebanon to support Hezbollah so that one day they can attack Israel from there with rockets, precision-guided munitions and the like. You see it already, for example, in Al-Tanf where the U.S. still maintains a presence very near a huge refugee camp, you can already see the pro-Iran, pro-regime forces beginning to encroach closer and closer upon the American position to the point where we may have to leave simply because we no longer have a defensive posture we can sustain. But what the withdrawal has done is it’s allowed Iran and the pro-regime forces to go to our allies, to go to the groups on the ground that we have been working with to fight ISIS and say to them the Americans are unreliable, the Americans are leaving, you might as well partner up with us now, we’re the only ones that can protect you. Or you can lay down your weapons and just go back to your families if Americans are leaving. And I fear it’s working. I fear they may dictate the pace of our withdrawal because that announcement alone has undermined our credibility in the eyes of the partners we have worked with in southern Syria.
Now people may say what’s wrong with this? Get out of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, why are we fighting other people’s wars? We’re not. This is not other people’s wars. This is ours. These people, who are going to operate in these safe havens and Iran, we are their target. We are who they want to strike at. And if you’re not in Afghanistan and you’re not in Iraq and you’re not in Syria, then where exactly are we going to conduct operations against terrorism? From where exactly are we going to be postured to defend ourselves if Iran decides to strike our other military facilities in the region? The answer is we won’t have any place to do that from, we won’t.
Not to mention what it says to the region, because understand this. The Iranians and our enemies in the region have been telling everyone for a long time, and the Russians echo this, Americans are unreliable, they always abandon their friends, you can’t count on them. Or America is a declining power. that’s the other argument they use openly. America is a great power in decline. And every year that goes by, you will see that they can’t back up their words. And that’s why you can’t count on them. America is weakening. I don’t believe that’s true. In fact, we know that’s not true. But halfway around the world, they do. And when we take actions that prove it, it makes it true in the minds of a lot of people and a lot of countries, and it actually is dangerous. Because it could invite someone to take a reckless and irresponsible action on the basis of miscalculation. Someone may believe America’s now weak, let’s attack them, and then we’re in a war.
The best way to prevent a war is to make sure those that want to fight you, know they have no chance of winning. But if you give them any belief that they have a chance to win because you have withdrawn and as a result reinforced the narrative being used against you, I believe you increase the chance of war. This is being used against us right now. Iran is openly parroting this. They are holding this up as an example of an Iranian win. They’re saying this proves our strategy has been working. The Americans are leaving Syria. They’re going to have to leave Iraq. They are going to leave Afghanistan with their tail between their legs. We are winning and they are losing. It reinforces a narrative, by the way, that’s also used against us by the Chinese in other parts of the world.
This is a very dangerous situation. That’s why this is a bad idea. This is about a lot more than just pulling out and not wasting any more money in these other places. Guys, there is no one in the world that wishes that more than me. I wish the money, I wish the lives, I wish all of this investment had not had to be spent. I openly wonder how much more could we be doing if we didn’t have this threat? But here’s the problem. Whether we wanted it to exist or not, the Iranian threat and the threat of terrorism exists. We cannot deal with the world the way we want it to be. We have to deal with the world the way it is. We didn’t create the terror threat, but it’s there. And we can ignore ISIS and we can ignore Al Qaeda and we can ignore Iran, but they will not ignore us. We can decide not to go after them, but they will come after us. And I think it’s a grave mistake because if we allow Al Qaeda and ISIS or both to have a resurgence, they will attack the United States of America. They will attack our allies and our interests around the world, and they will try and they will plot to attack us here at home. And the Iranian influence operation and their growth in influence in Iraq and Syria, now in Lebanon, increasingly in Yemen, God forbid in the future in Bahrain, poses an existential threat to all of our allies in the region, none more so than the state of Israel. That’s why I support this amendment. That’s why I hope all my colleagues will support this amendment. It is important that the legislative branch in the United States Senate who has a constitutional role to play in the setting of American foreign policy — they come to us to confirm people, they come to us to fund these things — that we play our rightful role in the setting of American foreign policy. And it is important that the United States Senate be on the right side of this issue so that we can hope to influence future actions and policies before they are taken and we can help change them once they have been taken in places headed in the wrong direction.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was first elected to the Senate in 2010.