Marco Rubio Takes to the Senate Floor to Talk About Syria Policy

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took to the Senate floor on Thursday to talk about U.S. policy toward Syria and the long-term challenges to U.S. national security in the region following Turkey’s incursion in Northern Syria.

A partial transcript of Rubio’s remarks is below:

Rubio: “It’s interesting when we come here, we seem to think that everybody in America is reading the blogs and all the major newspapers every morning. A lot of people do, but some people have lives to live. They get up early, they go to work. They listen to the news from time to time but they don’t follow it closely. That’s what they hire us to do and they hire us to deal with as policymakers.

“And on this issue of Syria, it strikes me, it really did earlier this week when… I frequent a gas station close to my house, it also has a little convenience store with a coffee stand inside. And a gentleman comes up to me and basically starts saying why do we care about all the stuff that’s happening there? It’s thousands of miles away. These people have been fighting forever. Let them figure out. Why do we have to be involved in all of this?

“And I will tell you there’s appeal to that argument, there really is. And I understand why Americans feel that way. We’ve had since September of 2001 we’ve lost countless young men and women abroad in combat. We’ve seen families that have been ripped apart. We’ve seen the injuries of people who have come home, not to mention the amount of money spent on this as well. At a time when we’re facing all these challenges people are saying to themselves, well, why do we have to be everywhere? Why do we have care about what these people have been fighting for a billion years. It’s not our problem. We need to focus on issues here at home. I do understand the appeal of that argument. And I want to tell you that despite how much I focus on these issues and spend time on them, from time to time those arguments appeal to me. But then you have to analyze why we’re there to begin with and what it would mean in the short- to long-term to our country to just walk away from these obligations. And that’s what I hope to do here today in a way that answers that gentleman’s question that he asked me last Monday.”

“And so here’s the way I would explain it, the first is you have to tell people why we’re there to begin with. Let me tell you what this is not. This is not about endless war or being somewhere for the rest of our lives or frankly, it’s not even about committing thousands of troops. The U.S. force presence in Syria was quite small. Actually it achieved an extraordinary amount with such a few number of people, 2,000 special operators embedded alongside thousands of Kurds.”

“The stated goal was, first and foremost, to stamp out and eliminate ISIS. The second was that our presence would provide leverage when the time came for a Syrian peace settlement, a settlement that would reflect our national interest. Primarily three things. Number one limiting Assad’s power. The guy is a stone cold criminal. I mean this guy has gassed and murdered his own people. There has to be some limits and constraints to his power. The second is to safeguard the Kurds. As you’ve heard others come to the floor and talk about, these people fought with us. We told them if you will do the ground fighting and we help you from the air and with logistics, we’re going to be here with you. And they did, and they lost over 10,000 people in that fight. They’ve been great partners in that endeavor. We had a moral obligation, not to mention a promise that we made. The third is to limit Iran’s influence.

“Iran would love nothing more than to completely dominate Syria because it links them directly into Lebanon to supply and support Hizballah. It allows them to pivot over into Iraq to become the dominant power there. Just imagine a Middle East in which Iran is the dominant power in Lebanon, in Syria, of course in Iran, eventually in Iraq, God forbid in Bahrain, growing influence in Yemen through the Houthis. They not only encircle Israel, they encircle Saudi Arabia. It would be a nightmare. We are engaged in a campaign of maximum pressure against Iran, and the last thing you want to do in a maximum pressure campaign is alleviate pressure, and having greater influence in Syria would alleviate a lot of pressure for Iran. And so that is the purpose of our presence there.

“I want to tell you the administration and the president’s decision has undermined every single one of them. And that’s the only way to talk about it. And I think has done so in ways that we’re going to regret for a long time.”

“Now, there’s news today that the Vice President and the Secretary of State were able to go to Turkey and work out what’s being called a cease-fire. Let me just say, I think they deserve praise — along with the president — for pursuing that mission because any time that human lives are spared from death in a war, that is cause for celebration. It does not appear to me, however, with all due respect, that this is really a cease-fire. It is more an ultimatum because what it basically is saying is Erdogan is saying ‘here’s land that I intend to take, I intend to drive every Kurd out of this area, and I intend for Turkey to control this area in Northern Syria as a security zone,’ as he calls it. And the only thing he’s done and agreed to is an ultimatum. The Kurds can leave this area voluntarily in the next five days or I’ll move in and take it and kill them. So you can call it a cease-fire, but frankly, it doesn’t appear to have changed the strategic objective that Erdogan has for that part.”

“First of all, clearly Iran will now have more operating space in Syria. The lack of a U.S. presence there means that Iran and its affiliated groups, particularly these Hizballah offshoots that now are in Syria, will have much more operating space and the stronger Assad is the stronger Iran will be. Assad is a very close ally of the Iranians and the more space he controls the more space they have to operate. Part embedded in this, by the way is if you noticed, Iran developed the ability to develop attacks against the United States sometimes using third groups that they control to either blame the attacks on, to claim credit for the attacks, or in some cases to conduct them. Because what this does is it gives Iran the capability of attacking the United States without facing international condemnation for the attack. Enough deniability, especially from countries that are looking to not blame Iran anyway, because it would force them to get out of the Iran deal. And they’ve gotten away with it. But one of the things that Iran has calculated in these attacks — one of the things they’ve taken into calculation is we believe the United States is trying to get out of the region. Meaning if we attack them, we can hit them much harder than we ever have before because they don’t want another war. They’re not going to hit us back as hard — we can get away with more. I’m pretty confident this decision has strengthened that perception, not weakened it. I fear what that could mean next.”

“The irony in all this, ironically, is that this decision actually, I fear, makes it likelier that there’s going to be a war and I’ll tell you why. As I pointed out first, the Iranian attack calculation. This further strengthens their belief that they can get away with even more brazen attacks because the threshold for a U.S. military response is higher than it’s ever been because we’re looking to get out and this proves it. What that can mean is they can miscalculate. We’re going to have to respond, and all of a sudden you’re in a real shooting war. Not a 2,000 person on the ground working with the Kurds war, a real regional conflict.

“The other is all of our alliances around the world are built on security guarantees. In Eastern Europe, the NATO security guarantee in many of these countries is a 300, 400, 500 man force — a tripwire. Not enough to stop a Russian incursion, but there because if they were confronted by Russians would trigger a broader conflict. You can say the same about South Korea, our presence in Japan, the commitments we made to Israel, the troops presence we have now in Saudi Arabia. It goes on and on and on and on. And ask yourself, after this will any ally relying on the United States security assurances be more or less confident of our assurances? I’ll tell you this, less than 48 hours before this withdrawal decision was made, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave unequivocal assurances that we were not going anywhere — the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A general, General Milley said we’re there, we’re not going anywhere, these are all rumors — 48 hours later this withdrawal announcement was made.”

“One last point on this, you know, Russia and China are going all over the world trying to come up with these ad hoc anti-U.S. coalitions, coalitions of countries we’re sanctioning to try to get around the dollarization of the global economy, coalitions to fight us against impediments against Chinese spyware and technology, coalitions to limit our presence in one part of the world or another. And the argument they make to these countries is why are you relying on America? They are unreliable. They are unreliable partners. They will cut on you as soon as it makes sense domestically for them to do so or somebody else gets elected and has a different opinion. Well, ask yourself has that argument been strengthened or weakened? Have we made it easier or harder for Russia and China to make that argument, including the countries who we have basing agreements with now. Including with countries that we’re meeting with every single day and we’re asking them don’t buy Russian weapons. Don’t install Chinese technology in your safe city initiative so they can spy on you and ultimately on us. Don’t allow them to take over your port facility or operate rotationally based military forces in your national territory. And we’ll help you with those things instead. Well I can tell you when China and Russia go to them the next time and say America is unreliable, they’ll have one more exhibit to show them as evidence to prove it. And that’s why I say that this decision has an impact that goes well beyond Syria.”

“And the favorite questions in the hallway from the reporters is, what should Congress do now? Or what can we do? Well, I think we’re searching to see what we can do to mitigate some of this damage. But I want to be honest with you, there are some mistakes and some decisions that cannot be reversed. There is some damage that cannot be mitigated, and I fear that some of these things are a part of it. We’ll spend time thinking about it. I think there might be some opportunities for the administration in the weeks and months to come to do some things about it, but right now I think we need to prepare ourselves for the consequences of what this is going to mean in the long term. And so, it was kind of a long answer to give someone at a gas station when I had a flight to catch in 45 minutes, and they were in a hurry as well. But I hope that for people back home, and potentially around the country who have an interest in this topic, I was at least able to shine some light on why some of us do not support this decision. It isn’t because we favor endless wars or want invasions. It’s because, while this might be popular when first presented to people, when you view it in its totality and its entirety, sometimes what is popular in the short term is not good for America’s national security in the long term. And it’s my fear that this is one such example.”

 

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