(CNSNews.com) – Breaking with President Trump over the issue, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday joined Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in announcing a bipartisan push for sanctions against the leaders and military of Turkey – a NATO ally – until it halts a unilateral military operation in northeastern Syria and withdraws its forces.
Their targets include President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his senior ministers, military assistance, transactions with Turkey’s military or energy sectors, and visas for Turkish leaders wanting to travel to the United States.
They also Ankara sanctioned for buying Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, under a provision of the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which seeks to punish those who enter into “significant” financial transactions with Russia’s military sector.
Van Hollen said Wednesday the bill would be introduced as soon as Congress returns, and that its sponsors will “ask for an immediate vote to send a clear message to Turkey that it must cease and desist its military action, withdraw its fighters from the areas under attack, and stop the tragic loss of life.”
Turkey’s Islamist president on Wednesday announced the launch of his offensive, aimed at ridding territory near the Syria-Turkey border of Kurdish fighters who were allied to the U.S. in the campaign against ISIS.
Asked at the White House about the sanctions push by Graham – normally a vocal ally – Trump seemed unperturbed, reiterating that he has himself warned Erdogan to be cautious, or face consequences.
“Lindsey Graham’s talking about imposing economic sanctions on Turkey over this incursion into Syria. What do you think about that?” a reporter asked.
“Well I think it’s okay. I’ve already told that to President Erdogan, far more than sanctions,” Trump replied. “I’ll do far more than sanctions.”
He said he agrees that the U.S. should take action against Erdogan “if he doesn’t do it in as humane a way as possible.”
Asked what that means, Trump said, “Well, we’re going to have to see, we’re going to have to define that as we go along.”
“We’ll see how he does it,” he said. “He could do it in a soft manner, he could do it in a very tough manner. And if he does it unfairly, he’s going to pay a very big economic price.”
Turkey’s defense ministry announced that its “heroic commandos” were advancing into Syrian territory east of the Euphrates River, as what it calls “Operation Peace Spring” got underway.
Their target: The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Turkey labels “terrorists” because of their affiliation to Kurds who have been waging a costly separatist struggle with Turkey for decades.
Erdogan wants them removed from the area, and then wants to send upward of two million Syrian refugees now sheltering in Turkey into a “safe zone” comprising a strip of territory adjacent to the border, about 19 miles wide and 300 miles long.
YPG fighters make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS. Trump is under fire for what critics see as a readiness to “abandon” them in the face of Erdogan’s offensive.
“While the administration refuses to act against Turkey, I expect strong bipartisan support” for the sanctions legislation, Graham said. “Most members of Congress believe it would be wrong to abandon the Kurds who have been strong allies against ISIS.”
“Senators on both sides of the aisle won’t support abandoning the one regional group most responsible for putting ISIS on its heels,” tweeted Van Hollen.
In a statement he also raised other concerns, arguing the offensive would “ensure the resurgence of ISIS in Syria, embolden America’s enemies including al-Qaeda, Iran, and Russia, and launch yet another endless conflict in what had been, until today, one of the most safe and stable areas of Syria and a region experimenting with the best model of local governance currently available in that war-torn country.”
Turkey’s operation began after the U.S. military moved soldiers “out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.
There are currently more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Syria, and Trump has long wanted them pulled out as he works to end what he calls “endless wars” in the Middle East.
In his comments at the White House, Trump said he and Graham differ over the Middle East.
“I think Lindsey would like to stay there for the next 200 years and maybe add a couple of hundred thousand people every place, but I disagree with Lindsey on that.”
The SDF said late Wednesday three of its fighters and five civilians had been killed, and dozens of civilians wounded, in Turkish shelling near the border, east of the Euphrates.