President Trump said Wednesday that it would be “easy” for the United States to form new alliances if Syrian Kurds leave the fight against the Islamic State to fend off a Turkish attack, noting that “they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us in Normandy” and were only interested in fighting for “their land.”
“With all of that being said, we like the Kurds,” he said in response to questions about Turkey’s incursion into Syria.
Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks, following a White House ceremony where he signed unrelated executive orders, came as the administration continued an effort to correct what it has called the misimpression that Trump enabled the offensive against the U.S.-allied Kurds that Turkey launched Wednesday. The president spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Sunday.
In an earlier written statement, Trump urged Turkey to protect civilians and safeguard prisons where Islamic State fighters are being detained, saying the United States would hold its NATO ally responsible for the consequences of its decision to attack a key U.S. counterterrorism partner.
Calling the offensive “a bad idea,” he said in the statement that Turkey had promised to avert a humanitarian crisis and ensure its operation did not allow the Islamic State to regain strength.
In his impromptu news conference, Trump said he expected Erdogan to conduct the offensive “in as humane a way as possible.”
“We’ll have to define that as we go along,” he said. “He can do it in a soft manner, he can do it in a very tough manner. If he doesn’t do it fairly, he’s going to [pay] a very big economic price.”
Earlier this week, Trump said he would “obliterate” the Turkish economy if Erdogan misbehaved, although he did not define what would constitute bad behavior. But he has largely dismissed the fight between Turkey and the Kurds as the result of “centuries” of hatred between them, indicating that the United States should not be involved.
Congressional critics, including leading Republicans, have charged that the administration had abandoned the Kurds by pulling back between 50 and 100 troops from the Syria-Turkey border, where they served as a buffer.
Trump announced Sunday night that Turkey “would soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria” but that U.S. forces would not be involved and “will no longer be in the immediate area.”
Behind the scenes, Defense Department and State Department officials have rushed to reassure other U.S. allies operating in Syria — principally France and Britain — that only a handful of U.S. troops were being moved and that the presence and mission of the total force of about 1,000 Americans in northern Syria would remain unchanged.
France, whose foreign minister condemned “the unilateral operation launched by Turkey in Syria,” called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday morning.
In written statements and his White House remarks, Trump linked his decision to withdraw U.S. forces to his goal of ending the insurgent wars that have dominated the U.S. military’s focus for two decades.
“The worst mistake the United States has ever made, in my opinion,” he said at the White House, “was going into” the Middle East. “We’re now acting as police,” he said, “doing jobs that other countries should be doing.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress continued to warn that the Turkish assault was a threat to U.S. policy interests.
“A Turkish military advance into Syria threatens to halt momentum against ISIS, directly assaults our SDF partners, and could give the likes of al-Qaeda and Iran new footholds in the region,” tweeted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). He called on Turkey to “stop immediately and continue to work with the US to secure the region.”
ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State. The SDF refers to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-dominated fighters who have been the principal U.S. allies on the ground against the militants.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), chair of the House Republican Conference, said the withdrawal decision was having “sickening and predictable consequences.” In addition to sparking new Islamic State attacks, she said in a statement, “this decision aids America’s adversaries, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and paves the way for a resurgence of ISIS.”
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “the scene unfolding in Syria today is unacceptable. Turkey must immediately end its military operation, which has already resulted in civilian casualties.” In a statement, McCaul said, “I am working with my colleagues in the House to address this dynamic situation in a bipartisan way.”
Democrats, most of whom had remained silent since the U.S. withdrawal was announced, began to surface their own criticism.
More than 50 Democratic House members issued an open letter to Trump on Wednesday saying his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria in advance of the Turkish operation puts U.S. allies in danger, jeopardizes U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region and will cause “current and future allies to question the reliability of the U.S. as a partner.”
The signers of the letter represented a wide spectrum of political views within the party — with lawmakers on the left, moderates, combat veterans such as Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), who spearheaded the effort, and two former CIA officers, Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who won in districts Trump carried in 2016.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military was closely monitoring events. Military officials said that Turkey was targeting mostly Kurdish military facilities and probably had destroyed some U.S.-provided military equipment. Another official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly, said some Turkish airstrikes had appeared to hit populated areas.
The official said the SDF had reduced its presence at the Islamic State prisons in Syria and at camps for displaced people that it controls. At the White House, Trump said that the United States had “taken a certain number of ISIS fighters that are particularly bad” and relocated them but that he expected Turkey to take over control of any detention facilities abandoned by the Kurds, many of whom rushed to the front lines of the Turkish incursion.
Later in the day, an official said all operations focused on the Islamic State in Syria had been halted at this time.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey, a NATO member, had informed the alliance about its “ongoing operation in Northern Syria.”
“I count on Turkey to act with restraint & ensure that the gains we have made in the fight against ISIS are not jeopardised,” Stoltenberg said on Twitter. “I will discuss this issue with President Erdogan Friday.”
The Turkish operation was launched shortly after Russia also indicated it would not stand in the way. During a telephone call, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought and was given assurances by Erdogan that the offensive would not impede Russian efforts to resolve the wider Syrian war in partnership with Iran and Turkey, according to the Kremlin.
The situation raises questions for U.S. troops in Syria and Turkey.
The U.S. military established a combined joint operations center in Ankara several weeks ago to coordinate with Turkish forces on patrols in a “security mechanism” buffer zone in Syria separating the Kurds from Turkey. With Turkey turning away from that agreement, however, the U.S. troops at the center may be called on to instead monitor the Turkish operation and make sure U.S. troops stay out of harm’s way, the U.S. officials said.
In a sign of Washington’s disapproval, Turkish forces were removed from planned flights by the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State in Syria, officials said. Turkish access to some intelligence and surveillance information also has been curtailed.
Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.