Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is defending the Trump administration’s withdrawal of military support for Kurdish forces in Syria, just as Turkey invaded the northern part of the country to push out Kurdish militias.
President Donald Trump late Sunday announced a withdrawal of U.S. forces in northeastern Syria after a phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, effectively exposing the U.S.-allied Kurds to Turkish and ISIS aggression. Turkey launched airstrikes on northeastern Syria on Wednesday, prompting condemnation from European governments and both parties in Congress.
But during a “PBS NewsHour” interview released on Wednesday, Pompeo denied that the administration had granted permission for Turkish aggression, saying: “The United States didn’t give Turkey a green light.”
Still, Pompeo said, Turkey had a “legitimate security concern,” adding that the U.S. has supported Turkey in preventing violence from spilling into the country. He also made it clear that his priority was defending the U.S. from terrorism, even though that could come at the cost of not protecting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who have been loyal allies to the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.
Pompeo maintained that it became clear after Trump’s call with Erdoğan that U.S. troops were in danger in northeastern Syria. Pompeo said the withdrawal was to protect them.
Trump, in a tweet on Monday, pledged to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it does anything he views to be “off limits.” But that hasn’t allayed fears among his own national security leaders, who felt blindsided by the withdrawal, and members of Congress from both parties.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a loyal Trump ally, made a rare break from the president and criticized the withdrawal. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another stalwart supporter of the president, said the withdrawal could lead to the return of ISIS, and released a bill with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to sanction Turkey for the strikes.
PBS’ Judy Woodruff brought up the remarks from congressional Republicans, but Pompeo rejected the criticism. He argued that the administration had already had success in eradicating religious extremism in the region, including ISIS’ losses in territory in recent years.
“I love Sen. Graham, he is a friend, but remember where we were when this administration came into office and now just judge us by our results,” Pompeo said, repeating the claim that the Trump administration had taken down ISIS.
He added: “There are a dozen other countries where the threat from radical Islamic terrorism continues to exist, and we, the United States, has to make sure we position our forces, our resources appropriately to reduce that threat to the United States.”
Pompeo also touched on Trump’s Ukraine scandal, which is at the center of the House’s impeachment inquiry. Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden — a request that has been blasted as asking for foreign interference in a U.S. election — according to a readout of a phone call between the two leaders in late July.
Pompeo characterized the call as a legitimate part of the administration’s effort to eradicate corruption in the former Soviet state.
“I know what this administration has done with respect to Ukraine,” he said. “We’ve worked diligently on this. I’m proud of our results. I remember where Obama left Ukraine; it left it at 80 percent of the size that it was when he came into office."
Trump said a similar line during a September bilateral meeting with Zelensky in New York. After Zelensky lamented the loss of Ukrainian territory in the past decade, Trump said: “If you remember, you lost Crimea during a different administration, not during the Trump administration.”
Russia invaded and seized parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, prompting condemnation from Western countries, including the U.S.