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Trump under pressure to respond to Turkey’s offensive in Syria as death toll rises

Before U.S. troops pulled out of northern Syria, clearing the way for a Turkish invasion, The Post went there and met Kurds who feared the looming assault. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump has come under increasing pressure, from within and outside his administration, to take action in response to Turkey’s escalating offensive and reports of significant casualties in northern Syria, amid apparent differences of opinion about what should be done.

“Some want us to send tens of thousands of soldiers to the area and start a new war all over again,” Trump said early Thursday on Twitter. “Others say STAY OUT and let the Kurds fight their own battles. I say hit Turkey very hard financially with sanctions if they don’t play by the rules.”

In a later tweet, echoed in comments to reporters as he departed for a political rally in Minneapolis, Trump altered the set of available options, saying, “Send in thousands of troops . . . hit Turkey very hard financially . . . or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds.”

Speaking to reporters on Oct. 10, President Trump suggested the United States could hit Turkey with "very, very tough" financial sanctions over the Kurds. (Video: The Washington Post)

While one senior administration official said that sanctioning Turkey was the leading option, another said that mediation was “the path the president would most prefer to do.”

Separately, a senior Trump adviser described the president as indecisive and said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had warned him that he was getting “boxed into a complete corner” by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. People discussing the sensitive situation did so on the condition of anonymity.

At the United Nations Security Council, both the United States and Russia, for different reasons, refused to approve a European-proposed resolution condemning Turkey’s action. Russia, whose air power has been decisive in helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad all but vanquish opposition rebels, has formed a close relationship with Turkey.

U.N. Security Council fails to condemn Turkey’s military action in Syria

Asked why the administration had balked at the word “condemn,” which is being used by U.S. lawmakers of both parties and allies in Europe, the second administration official said a policy decision had been made to describe the Turkish operation as “a bad idea.”

The official repeated administration denials that Trump had given a “green light” to Erdogan to begin attacks against Syrian Kurdish forces that have served as the principal U.S. ally in combating the Islamic State. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish group to be one and the same as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Turkish group seeking autonomy that has clashed with Turkey’s government for decades.

To fend off a cross-border attack against the Syrian Kurds, the administration had negotiated a deal with Turkey to establish a buffer zone between them.

But after a Sunday call between Erdogan and Trump, the White House announced that Turkey was about to launch a military operation in northern Syria and that U.S. troops were getting out of the way.

While the statement warned Turkey against excesses, Trump’s failure to intervene, and the breadth of the subsequent attacks, have brought a torrent of bipartisan and international criticism and charges that the United States has abandoned its counterterrorism partners.

Asked about reports of disagreements between the State and Defense departments about what to do, and military charges that Pompeo has been “too passive” in objecting to Trump’s inaction, the second official shot back.

“I have yet to have been in a crisis in all my years where there wasn’t some military official who didn’t find the [State] Department too passive and placid . . . because that’s how they look at us. I have never seen Mike Pompeo . . . put more time into any one subject over a 72-hour period,” the official said.

Trump has said he would strike back if Turkey took action that he disapproved of. That, the official said, “would include ethnic cleansing” of Kurdish areas in northern Syria and “in particular, indiscriminate artillery, air and other fires directed at civilian populations. That is what we’re looking at right now.” The official said that “we have not seen significant examples” of such abuses, “but we’re very early.”

On what the official said was Trump’s preferred option of mediation, the national security team has been “tasked by the president to try to see if there are areas of commonality between the two sides.”

But Turkish forces have been massing on the Syrian border, and Erdogan has been threatening to invade, for months with no indication the United States was trying to mediate. On Wednesday, Trump dismissed the Syrian Kurds as dispensable allies who “didn’t help us in the Second World War” and were only interested in fighting for “their land.”

“Faced with the decision by Erdogan to go for broke,” the official said, “the president took four decisions that have shaped everything we’ve done.” He said he would not “endorse the invasion or provide support for it that Erdogan had requested.

“Thirdly, the United States will not oppose the invasion militarily. Turkey is a NATO ally of ours,” the official said. “We just think they’re making a very big mistake.”

Finally, “if Turkey acts in a way that is disproportionate or otherwise goes beyond the lines the president has in his own mind, the United States is willing to impose significant costs.”

Josh Dawsey and Carol Morello contributed to this report.