Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made a secret trip to Kurdish territory in Syria last weekend, where he visited American military personnel. He also met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey on his way home.
“Senator McCain traveled to northern Syria last week to visit U.S. forces deployed there and to discuss the counter-ISIL campaign and ongoing operations to retake Raqqa. Senator McCain’s visit was a valuable opportunity to assess dynamic conditions on the ground in Syria and Iraq. President Trump has rightly ordered a review of the U.S. strategy and plans to defeat ISIL,” said a McCain spokeswoman quoted by The Hill.
McCain’s visit reportedly took him to the Kurdish town of Kobane, which was the focus of an intense battle between the Kurds and the Islamic State in 2014. He made a previous visit to Syria in 2013, where he met with rebel forces backed by the United States.
McCain’s trip to Syria is controversial for several reasons. As The Hill points out, just a month ago Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii announced she made a secret trip to Syria and had a secret meeting with dictator Bashar Assad, a revelation greeted with “shock and disgust” by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The Trump administration is not likely to be pleased with so much freelance congressional diplomacy.
Senator McCain does not appear to have done anything as outrageous as Gabbard, and the statement from his office sought to portray him as helpful to the Trump administration. The White House has said little to date about McCain’s Syrian excursion. CNN cites McCain’s office saying it was an official congressional delegation trip, “meaning the US government sponsored and paid for the senator’s travel.”
As Fox News notes, McCain has been a vociferous Republican critic of the Trump administration, including a “withering critique of Trump’s worldview” delivered at the Munich Security Conference last week.
The Obama administration left its successors in a delicate position with Turkey and the Kurds in Syria, having planned to arm the Kurds and use them as a primary proxy force in the coming battle to recapture the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa. Turkey is strongly opposed to such a role for the Kurds.
Also, the Washington Examiner quotes McCain’s close friend, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), arguing that Sunni extremists in Raqqa would “kick the Kurds out” if they participated heavily in liberating the city, so the Trump administration should consider at least partially replacing Kurdish forces with Turks in the Raqqa battle plan.
“The United States must work with Turkey to deal a rapid and lasting defeat to ISIL as part of a broader strategy to strengthen US allies and partners, counter the malign influence of our adversaries, and build a favourable balance of power in the region,” McCain said in a statement after meeting with Erdogan in Ankara.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis just completed his own trip to the Middle East, and will soon present President Trump with the comprehensive strategy review praised by Senator McCain’s office.
“We have been working diligently with our interagency partners to develop it with the intelligence community, our military commanders on the ground, the Joint Staff and our policy team here, and it represents the input of a number of other departments,” said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on Tuesday.