“This was an outcome created by us, the United States, and nobody else. No other nation; very simple.”
Trump is claiming credit for ending a problem that he created. After a conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and against the advice of many foreign-policy aides, Trump decided to withdraw U.S. forces from critical positions in northeastern Syria and abandon Kurdish troops that had been U.S. allies. His action was in effect a green light for Turkish-backed troops to invade.
Turkey has long considered elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — who were critical to the defeat of the Islamic State’s caliphate — to be a terrorist threat. To prevent a Turkish invasion, the United States persuaded the SDF to pull back up to nine miles from the Turkish border. In August, the SDF destroyed its own military posts after assurances the United States would not let thousands of Turkish troops invade. But then Trump tossed that aside.
Trump then hastily tried to arrange a pause in the fighting, and during that period, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to joint security patrols that will force Kurdish fighters from the areas they had controlled in Syria. So, in effect, the vacuum created by the U.S. departure has bolstered Russia’s influence in the region.
As Trump spoke at the White House, his special envoy on the Syria crisis gave an entirely different message to lawmakers.
“We obviously had troops there for a mission and that mission was defeating ISIS,” Ambassador James Jeffrey told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “So if you remove those troops before that mission is complete, then you have a problem. And we do have a problem right now.”
Jeffrey added that the Turkish invasion “has scrambled the entire northeast, undercut our efforts against ISIS and brought in the Russians and Syrian regime forces in a way that’s really tragic for everyone involved.”
A former foreign minister of Iraq — a Kurd — summed up the view from the region.
“Turkey, Syria and all forms of the Kurds have been fighting for centuries. We have done them a great service, and we’ve done a great job for all of them.”
Trump frequently and misleadingly frames this as a “centuries”-long conflict between the Turks and the Kurds. There has been a hundred-year effort to create a Kurdish state in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with the Kurds frequently manipulated by great powers seeking to flex their muscles against a particular nation, such as Iraq. The Kurds were promised a country in the 1920 Treaty of Sévres, which broke up the Ottoman Empire, but that promise was abandoned in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne after the new Turkish government rejected the terms of the previous treaty.
“We were supposed to be there for 30 days. That was almost 10 years ago. So we’re there for 30 days, and now we’re leaving. Supposed to be a very quick hit and let’s get out, and it was a quick hit except they stayed for almost 10 years.”
This is a made-up “fact.” In October 2015 — four years ago — President Barack Obama deployed a small number of troops to advise and assist local forces fighting against the Islamic State. Then-White House spokesman Josh Ernest said the initial deployment would be small, “less than 50.” He said “they will not have a combat mission,” which they never have. Troops were added, but no official said anything even remotely about 30 days or any timetable at all.
“Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.”
Trump needs to brush up on his geography. The Kurdish region is mountainous and verdant, not a desert. This was emphasized in the 2007 public relations campaign launched by Iraqi Kurdistan, when it tried to pitch itself to Americans as “the other Iraq.”
“General Mazloum has assured me that ISIS is under very, very strict lock and key, and the detention facilities are being strongly maintained. There were a few that got out, a small number, relatively speaking, and they’ve been largely recaptured.”
Mazloum is a nom de guerre for Ferhat Abdi Şahin, commander of the SDF. Both Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Jeffrey, the special envoy, have said that more than 100 Islamic State militants have escaped in the chaos. There is no indication that they have been recaptured, as Trump said.
“We would say that the number is now over 100. We do not know where they are,” Jeffrey told lawmakers, adding: “ISIS is pitching this as a victory for them.”
“Through much work, we have done things that everybody said couldn’t be done. Today’s announcement validates our course of action with Turkey that only a couple of weeks ago was scorned. And now people are saying, ‘Wow, what a great outcome. Congratulations.’"
Trump’s handling of Syria has been roundly criticized by lawmakers in both parties.
After Trump’s remarks, the criticism continued, even from Republicans:
Only the Turks or the Russians might have described it as a “great outcome,” since it advanced their aims in the region.
Julia Davis in the Daily Beast rounded up some of the reaction in Russia:
“Putin won the lottery! Russia’s unexpected triumph in the Middle East,” raved Mikhail Rostovsky in his article for the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. “Those who were convinced of Trump’s uselessness for Russia ought to think again...What Washington got out of this strange move is completely unclear. To the contrary, what Moscow gained from this is self-evident...Trump’s mistake in Syria is the unexpected ‘lottery win’ that further strengthened Moscow’s position in the Middle East and undermined America’s prestige as a rational political player and a reliable partner.”
“It’s been a long time since America has been humiliated this way,” gloated political analyst Mikhail Sinelnikov-Orishak, “They ran away in shame! I can’t recall such a scenario since Vietnam.”
“The last administration said [Syrian President Bashar] Assad must go. They could have easily produced that outcome, but they didn’t. In fact, they drew a very powerful red line in the sand — you all remember the red line in the sand — when children were gassed and killed, but then did not honor their commitment, as other children died in the same horrible manner. But I did honor my commitments with 58 Tomahawks.”
Obama’s “red line” statement was one the low points of his presidency. (We detailed the ad hoc fashion in which he adopted it in this 2013 fact check.) After Obama decided not to attack Syria over its chemical weapons use, he instead decided to negotiate a deal under which the Syrian government would give up its chemical weapons stockpile. The Obama White House touted that as a great achievement, but later it emerged that Syria did not declare all of its stocks and still attacked citizens with chemical weapons not covered by the 2013 agreement.
Still, when Obama was weighing an attack, guess who told him it would be a mistake?
“We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars.”
The Cost of Wars project at Brown University’s Watson Institute has estimated that war on terrorism, including homeland security and military action in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and additional interest on the debt and medical care for veterans, has totaled almost $5 trillion through fiscal 2019. (Medical care for veterans through fiscal 2056 is an additional $1 trillion.)
Trump every year, for no particular reason, adds another $1 trillion, so this claim has grown from $6 trillion at the start of his administration to $7 trillion in 2018 and now $8 trillion.
“The same people pushing for these wars are often the ones demanding America open its doors to unlimited migration from war-torn regions, importing the terrorism and the threat of terrorism right to our own shores.”
Trump has consistently and misleadingly tried to claim that “terrorists” are entering the United States from “war-torn” countries. But every time the administration has tried to make its case, our fact checks have found the numbers to be dubious or wrong.
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