WASHINGTON (CN) — The head of the Syrian Democratic Council has called on Congress to immediately impose sanctions on Turkey to halt what she sees as an impending genocide, just hours after President Donald Trump declared a ceasefire along the Syrian-Turkish border.
From the White House lawn on Wednesday, Trump said the U.S. will lift sanctions imposed on Turkey after it invaded Syria earlier this month.
“This deal could never have been made without this short-term outburst,” Trump said, referring to the mounting death toll since Turkey launched an assault on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
But Ilham Ahmed, co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, said the violence rages on. She shared accounts of mutilated bodies, burned towns and displacement by the hundreds of thousands in testimony to the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security on Wednesday afternoon.
“This is a very dangerous situation. There are some hopes that the Turkish government is going to stay there,” Ahmed said, referring to the agreed upon 75-mile safe zone. “But there is a reality that our geography is now divided.”
The safe zone is part of the deal between Syria and Turkey, brokered by the U.S., that also requires the Kurds to pull back to certain Syrian cities and places them under the protection of Russian forces.
Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and hand off regional control was met with sweeping backlash from longtime allies. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the move a “strategic nightmare,” while Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he feared it was a “complete and utter national security disaster in the making.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Congressman Stephen Lynch, D-Ma., said Trump showed “whimsical indifference” toward the conflict and ceded all ability to influence events on the ground in Syria to Turkey and Russia.
But Republicans on the committee repeatedly drew on Trump’s argument that U.S. involvement in the Middle East had dragged on too long.
Representative Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., asked a former Army Special Forces officer testifying to the committee on his experience in battle alongside SDF allies how long the West Point graduate had fought on “that piece of sand.”
The officer, Martin Palmer, appeared puzzled by the congressman’s question.
“There are a number of different conflicts in the region and you have to speak about them specifically to say anything meaningful,” Palmer answered.
Testimony from Ahmed matched concerns raised by humanitarian agencies that Turkish forces would massacre Syrian Kurds in the operation to clear a “safe zone” of Kurdish militants it sees as terrorists.
She called the Turkish operation an ethnic cleansing.
“They are killing them, kidnapping them, seizing their properties, burning their trees,” Ahmed said.
She testified that the same fighters who defeated the Islamic State terrorist group are now being treated like terrorists themselves. She also warned lawmakers that the escape of hundreds of IS fighters and their families poses an international threat.
Recounting his experience on the front line battling alongside SDF forces, Palmer said the allies were instrumental in fighting terrorists. He said he observed firsthand the bravery and dedication of the SDF as they partnered with his detachment.
The first occasion, Palmer said, was during a night patrol when IS forces opened fire on his combat team.
“Within minutes, the SDF area commander arrived at my position with additional soldiers and was by my side during the fight, even as bullets peppered our position,” Palmer said.
While Trump claimed the U.S. has brokered a peace deal, Ahmed said the death toll among Kurdish and Arab Syrian civilians continues to rise.
“This is not a ceasefire. This is a continuation of the war,” she said, adding in her full statement submitted to the committee calls for a no-fly zone over Syria and deployment of international peacekeepers along the Turkish border.
Representative Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said U.S. allies should not be abused and reminded the committee that SDF forces lost 11,000 soldiers in the fight against the terrorist group, while the U.S. lost six soldiers.
“That’s a disproportionate sacrifice on their part,” Cooper said. “They suffer 11,000 casualties and we take six.”