Trump discussed recent developments in Syria from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room on Wednesday, announcing he would lift U.S. sanctions on Turkey after Turkish officials declared what he described as a “permanent” cease-fire.
In his 15-minute remarks, Trump made many contradictory and confusing statements — claiming, for instance, that the United States was only supposed to stay in Syria for “30 days” but had instead stayed for nearly a decade. (The United States first deployed troops there in 2015.)
We analyzed and contextualized a number of his statements below.
‘The United States and nobody else'
Trump described Turkey’s cease-fire in northeastern Syria as “permanent” and said sanctions would be lifted, describing the outcome as being due to the “the United States and nobody else, no other nation.”
But just one day earlier, Russian and Turkish leaders met in Sochi, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea, and agreed on a plan that would see them take over the territory U.S.-backed Kurdish forces controlled until this month — a sign of how little input the United States really has on the situation.
And despite calling the cease-fire “permanent,” Trump seemed to cast some doubt on his own claim, adding that it’s “questionable” to call anything in the region permanent.
Turkey is hosting millions of Syrian refugees, and as Erdogan faces mounting economic pressure at home, he’s suggested returning Syrians back to their home country by establishing a safe zone along the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border. Human rights advocates have expressed a wide range of concerns over this plan. They worry that refugees will be forcibly returned to a war zone, that the safe zone won’t actually be safe for the returnees and that Erdogan has alternative motives, hoping to use the refugees to eradicate Kurdish strongholds by sending Syrians from all different ethnic groups and regions into a predominantly Kurdish area.
Trump referred to these plans Wednesday, saying the United States helped achieve a safer area between Turkey and Syria, including “a 20-mile-wide safe zone. An interesting term ‘safe zone’ — that’s the term we’re using. Hopefully that zone will become safe. Thousands and thousands of people have been killed in that zone over the years.”
Human rights advocates would say he has good reason to question whether “that zone will become safe.” As some experts told The Washington Post earlier this month, plans for a safe zones could in fact create “death traps.”
Trump said Wednesday that U.S. troops were never supposed to have stayed in Syria as long as they have and that Washington had done “a great service and done a great job for all of them and now we’re getting out.”
“Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand,” he said.
As The Post reported before, Trump has developed something of a proclivity for describing Syria as, well, “sand.” Syria has “got a lot of sand over there,” he said earlier this month. “So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”
In January, he said: “We’re talking about sand and death, that’s what we’re talking about.”
Contrary to these statements, Syria’s deserts are not very sandy but rather more dusty and semiarid.
Trump said Wednesday that he had just spoken with Syrian Kurdish commander Gen. Mazloum Abdi. “He was extremely thankful for what the United States has done,” Trump said. “He could not have been more thankful.”
“We had a great talk,” Trump added. “We’ve saved the lives of many, many Kurds. He understands that.”
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, seemed to confirm that version of events, tweeting remarks he attributed to Mazloum, thanking Trump for “his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack and jihadist groups on our people.” He also wrote that Trump “promised to maintain partnership with SDF and long-term support at various spheres.”
It’s unclear what exactly happened on the call, but this is somewhat remarkable considering that Kurdish officials have repeatedly accused Trump of abandoning them in Syria, and just three days ago Bali himself tweeted that Trump was encouraging what he described as an “ongoing genocide campaign."
Kurdish forces oversee a network of detention centers holding suspected Islamic State fighters and their families, including many foreigners. Trump claimed Wednesday that Mazloum told him the detention centers were secure.
“Gen. Mazloum has assured me ISIS is under very, very strict lock and key and the detention facilities are being strongly maintained,” Trump said. “There were a few that got out, a small number relatively speaking, and they’ve been largely recaptured.”
But both Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, have recently said that at least 100 suspected Islamic State fighters had escaped from detention in the area. In fact, Jeffrey’s comments came just an hour before Trump’s statement that significantly downplayed such concerns.
Trump said Wednesday that “American forces defeated 100 percent of the ISIS caliphate during the last two years."
American forces were by no means the only troops to push the Islamic State out of its territory in Syria and Iraq. As Trump himself later pointed out, Syrians and Iraqis sacrificed by far the most troops in military operations against the Islamic State: 10,000 Syrian Kurdish fighters died fighting the group, in addition to Iraqi soldiers and civilians from both countries who were killed, wounded and displaced over the course of the conflict.
Trump tried to justify his reasoning for troop withdrawal Wednesday, asking how many Americans must die “in the midst of these ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts.”
This narrative overlooks the fundamental ways in which American and Western interventions in the region — such as the Iraq War — have entirely disrupted and influenced political, social and economic dynamics, thereby contributing to the very conflicts Trump routinely derides.
$8 trillion on wars in the Middle East
On Wednesday, Trump claimed the United States has “spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East,” an uptick from his earlier claims that Washington had already spent $6 trillion or $7 trillion on these conflicts. Studies estimating U.S. expenditures on these conflicts vary, but experts say it’s unlikely that Washington has actually spent that much.
On Wednesday, Trump said it’s “too early for me to be congratulated.” But he has already repeatedly congratulated himself for the “big success” — even as he’s faced mounting criticism at home, even from members of his own party.