President Trump said Wednesday he is lifting sanctions on Turkey after Ankara agreed to stop its military operation against American-allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, brushing aside complaints that his abrupt policy shifts have ceded American interests in the region to Russian President Vladimir Putin and advancing Russian military patrols.
After announcing a complete pullout of American troops in Syria earlier this month, Mr. Trump said Wednesday that a small number of U.S. troops will remain near the Turkish-Syrian border to patrol oil fields, though he characterized the cease-fire deal with Turkey brokered by Vice President Mike Pence last week as a “major breakthrough” that fulfills his pledge to end American involvement in lengthy foreign wars.
“Now we’re getting out,” he said. “Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand.”
Mr. Trump’s brief White House statement failed to quell bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill that the withdrawal has undercut a key ally in the Kurds, enhanced the influence of U.S. adversaries such as Russia, Iran and Syria, and endangered the fight against the Islamic State in the region. As the president was speaking at the White House, his main diplomatic envoy to the Syrian crisis, Ambassador James Jeffrey, was telling a congressional hearing that at least 100 ISIS militants had escaped from a Kurdish-run detention site in recent days and were at large.
Mr. Trump insisted a safe zone established on the Turkish-Syrian border fulfills terms negotiated by Mr. Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan demanded the complete withdrawal of “YPG” fighters — the elements of the broader Syrian Democratic Forces whom Turkey considers to be terrorists with links to militant Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.
But Mr. Erdogan made clear Wednesday that Turkey is ready to resume its military offensive in northern Syria if the Kurdish-led SDF doesn’t follow through with its commitments to exit a new buffer zone at the Turkish border and root out what Ankara considers to be terrorist elements.
“There will be no change in the steps we would need to take if promises made in the agreements with both U.S. and Russia will not be fulfilled. For the U.S., we will determinedly carry out the same operation,” Mr. Erdogan said, as quoted by Turkish media, adding that he received personal assurances from Mr. Putin that the Russian military, which is allied with government forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, will ensure terrorist factions are eliminated.
In addition to strengthening Moscow’s hand in the region, the deal is widely seen as a major victory for Mr. Assad, who is pressing to consolidate control of the entire country after eight years of brutal civil war. The Turkish-Russian deal allows Mr. Assad’s troops to return to regions of northern Syria that had been lost to the Kurds.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump tried to head off the firestorm on Capitol Hill. He said Islamic State fighters who had been under SDF guard remain under “lock and key” in the region and that those who did escape have been “largely recaptured” — despite Mr. Jeffrey’s testimony.
U.S. allies, who were taken by surprise by Mr. Trump’s withdrawal order, zeroed in on the fate of those fighters. They cautioned Washington that it cannot assume the fight against the Islamic State in Syria is forever won.
“We understand that the fight against ISIS is not over. They can come back,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Those comments underscore the fallout Mr. Trump has faced abroad and at home after his initial decision this month to withdraw dozens of U.S. troops from a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, and the administration’s follow-up announcement that virtually all 1,000 American forces would leave Syria entirely.
Those troops — other than the contingent expected to guard Syrian oil fields — are headed to Iraq for now. Their ultimate destination is unknown because Iraqi officials said they would be allowed to stay for only four weeks.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin added to the confusion when he told reporters in Moscow that the Kremlin expects the United States to shut down its remaining military base in southern Syria and that any American presence inside Syria was illegitimate.
In Washington, lawmakers from both parties accused Mr. Trump of allowing Turkish forces to overrun Kurdish fighters who fought with U.S. troops for years and said the president added insult to injury by negotiating a cease-fire that handed Mr. Erdogan virtually all of his demands while forcing hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee from their homes.
The president said Turkish forces had been itching for years to overrun the Kurds and that he couldn’t authorize a shooting war with Turkey, a NATO ally. He took credit for pulling American troops out of harm’s way.
“Countless lives are now being saved as a result of our negotiation with Turkey — an outcome reached without spilling one drop of American blood. No injuries. Nobody shot, nobody killed,” Mr. Trump said.
Senior administration officials deferred to the Pentagon on how soldiers will be dispersed from the area or how many troops will remain. Some will go to Iraq, while a “residual force” will safeguard oil fields to give Kurds an economic benefit and ensure that Islamic State fighters do not profit from the supply.
Mr. Trump said the main Kurdish commander, Gen. Mazloum Abdi, called him to express gratitude for American efforts, even though some Kurds pelted exiting U.S. troops with potatoes this week.
“What will the president do to prevent Russian and Turkish aggression and the potential slaughter of our allies and friends, the Kurds? When will the administration present its strategy to Congress?” asked Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. He said he also fears a resurgence of the Islamic State.
“It’s their neighborhood; they have to take care of it,” Mr. Trump said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and a key Trump ally, applauded the president for calling on European nations to take back Islamic State fighters who left their countries to join the caliphate, but he remains uneasy about leaving too much to Mr. Assad and others in the region.
“It is imperative we continue to partner with Kurdish forces to prevent ISIS from coming back,” Mr. Graham said. “I do not trust or believe that Turkey, Russia or Assad have the capability or the desire to protect America from radical Islamic threats like ISIS.”
“It’s unthinkable that Turkey would not suffer consequences for malevolent behavior which was contrary to the interests of the United States and our friends,” Mr. Romney said in a post on Twitter.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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