President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced the lifting of US sanctions against Turkey and defended his abrupt pullout from Syria, saying “let someone else fight” over the “blood-stained” country.
In a White House speech that formalized ceding of US and Kurdish control in northern Syria to Turkey and Russia, Trump insisted that Kurdish guerrillas who had fought alongside US troops were happy.
The president, whose Syria policy has come under withering criticism from his own Republican party, said he’d just spoken with the Kurdish commander in the country, Mazloum Abdi, and he was “extremely thankful.”
Trump touted a “major breakthrough,” referring to a ceasefire that allowed Turkish troops to occupy a swath of northern Syria mostly unopposed, with US troops and Kurdish fighters abandoning their previous strongholds.
Ankara ordered the invasion of the Syrian territory on October 9 because it said it wanted to create a security cordon free of Kurdish armed groups that it considers to be terrorists, linked to Kurdish rebels inside Turkey.
The long-planned operation started only after Trump announced the exit of a small, but politically signficant US military force which had until then been closely allied with the Kurds in a joint fight against Islamic State jihadists in Syria.
Trump said he didn’t want the US troops caught in the middle of a Turkish-Kurdish fight.
Accused of betraying the Kurds by both Republicans and Democrats, Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey on October 14 and sent a delegation to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to order a brief ceasefire, allowing the Kurds to withdraw.
In a tweet from a spokesman on Wednesday, Mazloum thanked Trump “for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack and jihadist groups on our people.”
As US troops and the Kurds exited areas near Turkey’s border, Turkish troops and Russian troops, who have propped up Syrian President Bashar Assad through his country’s multi-sided civil war, moved in.
The first Russian patrol in northern Syria got underway on Wednesday, the defense ministry in Moscow announced.
Trump insisted this power shift is a win for Washington and that he is fulfilling a campaign promise by washing his hands of “ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts.”
“Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand,” he said.
– Islamic State escapees –
Trump said there was no risk that the turmoil in the area could lead to a reconstitution of Islamic State, which has lost its once sizeable territories and has thousands of members and their relatives kept in camps controlled by the Kurds.
With concerns that the Kurds may no longer be able to monitor the Islamic State prisoners, Trump said he expects Turkey to “abide by its commitment” to act as a “back-up to the Kurds.”
“Should something happen, Turkey is there to grab them,” he said.
He was speaking shortly after a US State Department official, James Jeffrey, testified in Congress that “over 100” Islamic State prisoners had escaped so far and “we do not know where they are.”
Trump said that a “small number” of US soldiers would remain nearby, but purely to guard oil facilities.
His central message was clear: that the United States has no business in Syria and that there was never any question of trying to stop NATO member Turkey from carrying out its invasion.
“We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars,” Trump said.
“But after all that money was spent and all those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded, so many — the Middle East is less safe, less stable and less secure than before these conflicts began.”
However, the isolationist policy grates on many Republicans, whom he is depending upon to save him from a Democratic push to impeach and remove him from office over allegations that he abused his office.
Immediately after the speech, powerful Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the United States had to stay engaged.
Graham said he agreed “that America is not the policeman of the world.”
But he said that US air power must “continue to control the skies over Syria” and the military should “have a small ?- but capable ?- military partnership” with the Kurds to prevent Islamic State from reemerging.