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President Trump on Wednesday tried to further distance himself from his decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, which cleared the way for the bloody invasion by Turkey that has turned into a humanitarian crisis and a disaster for the Kurds.
“I view the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be, for the United States, strategically brilliant,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office before a bilateral meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella. “That’s between Turkey and Syria. It’s not between Turkey and Syria and the United States.”
Despite calling the deteriorating situation on the ground “brilliant,” Trump has announced sanctions and tariffs intended to bring Turkey into negotiations for a cease-fire.
Trump said the Kurdish militia forces that fought alongside U.S. troops in the successful war against ISIS are “not angels — they’re not angels.” He added that the Kurds — who have been fleeing the Turkish invasion by the hundreds of thousands — “are much safer now.”
The president suggested without evidence that jailed ISIS fighters were released on purpose after the withdrawal to make the United States look bad.
Trump admitted that the pullback will create a vacuum that Turkey and “probably Russia” will fill in northern Syria. The U.S. is “not a policing agent,” he said. “It’s time to go home.”
“I wish them all a lot of luck,” Trump added. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. There’s a lot of sand they can play with.”
Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in the Oval Office for Trump’s remarks, are preparing to travel to Ankara to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday. The White House said Pence plans to reiterate Trump’s “commitment to maintain punishing economic sanctions on Turkey until a resolution is reached.”
Erdogan, after reportedly telling reporters he wouldn’t speak with Pence, has agreed to meet with the delegation but has shown no willingness to commit to a cease-fire.
Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops, which he made after a phone call with Erdogan, was met with intense bipartisan criticism.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper admitted Sunday that the situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly and “gets worse by the hour.”
In an interview with “Fox & Friends” earlier this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been one of Trump’s strongest Republican allies in the Senate, said Kurdish fighters in Syria had been “shamelessly abandoned by the Trump administration.”
Graham predicted Trump’s Syria withdrawal will be “the biggest mistake of his presidency.”
At a joint press conference with the Italian president in the East Room later Wednesday, Trump took aim at Graham, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years with thousands of soldiers, and fighting other peoples’ wars,” Trump said. “I wanna get out of the Middle East. I think Lindsey should focus right now on Judiciary.”
"When it comes to America's national security I will NEVER be quiet," Graham responded on Twitter.
Trump also suggested the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the Kurdish military faction that the United States fought alongside in Turkey and Iraq, is “tough or tougher” than ISIS.
The PKK, Trump said, “is probably worse at terror, more of a terrorist threat in many ways, than ISIS.”
Foreign policy observers were quick to note that the assertion mimicked talking points used by officials in Russia and Turkey.
“This is among the most dishonest, craven statements ever from Trump — to justify his total sell-out to ISIS, Putin, Assad and Erdogan,” tweeted Susan Rice, a former U.S. national security adviser under President Barack Obama. “We need to find out WHY? What did Trump get in exchange for sacrificing our national security?”
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