Turkey has agreed to end its military operation against U.S.-allied Kurds in Syria and the U.S. is lifting sanctions it had imposed on Turkey, President Donald Trump said on Oct. 23.
“Today’s announcement validates our course of action with Turkey that only a couple of weeks ago was scorned,” the president said in remarks from the White House. “And now people are saying, ‘Wow, what a great outcome. Congratulations.’ It’s too early, to me, to be congratulated. But we’ve done a good job, we’ve saved a lot of lives.”
The outcome, Trump said, was “reached without spilling one drop of American blood. No injuries. Nobody shot, nobody killed.”
In touting the successful cessation of hostilities, the president was also rebutting widespread criticism of his surprise announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the area. The heated opposition came from both parties and has sparked a revival of neoconservative ‘never Trumpers’ critical of his administration.
“Turkey, Syria and all forms of the Kurds have been fighting for centuries. We have done them a great service,” Trump said.
Trump said that an agreed upon “safe zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border fulfills terms negotiated by Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Should Turkey fail to honor its obligations, including the protection of religious and ethnic minorities — which I truly believe they will do — we reserve the right to reimpose crippling sanctions, including substantially increased tariffs on steel and all other products coming out of Turkey,” Trump said.
Erdogan stressed that Turkey is would quickly resume military operations in northern Syria if the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) doesn’t follow through with its commitment to leave the new buffer zone and root out what Erdogan said were “terrorist” elements.
“I have just spoken to General Mazlum — a wonderful man, the commander in chief of the SDF Kurds — and he was extremely thankful for what the United States has done. Could not have been more thankful,” Trump said.
Trump said that a small contingent of U.S. troops will remain near the Turkish-Syrian border. He characterized the cease-fire deal with Turkey brokered by Pence last week as a “major breakthrough” that fulfills his pledge to end American involvement in lengthy foreign wars.
“Now we’re getting out,” Trump said. “Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper rejected criticism that keeping American forces in place, or threatening Turkey, would have prevented Turkey’s assault on the Kurds.
“I was not about to put less than 50 U.S. soldiers in-between a 15,000-plus man Turkish army preceded by Turkish militia and jeopardize the lives of our young service members,” Esper told reporters.
“So everybody has said, well, you could have threatened them with aircraft or you could have just kept them there in place. If I’d done that, I may be in a situation today trying to explain to the American people why I sacrificed American soldiers for that,” Esper argued. “I’m not about to throw up aircraft, and suggest that I’m going to strike a NATO ally because that’s just not feasible. We’d be having a different discussion today about the future of the alliance if that had happened.”
A deal reached between Turkey and Russia will allow Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s troops to return to regions of northern Syria that had been lost to the Kurds.
Asked about ceding control of the 20-mile wide border region to Turkey and Russia, Esper said the U.S. would seek to continue to work with the SDF in other parts of Syria.
“Our partnership with the SDF, which was a very good one and still is a very good one by the way, was about defeating ISIS,” Esper said. “Our commitment to the Kurds was not to help them establish an autonomous Kurdish state and to defend them against Turkey. And that’s just the cold hard facts.”
Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have negotiated plans to patrol Syria’s northeastern border, a power-sharing deal that was blasted by U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
“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?” Schumer asked, adding he also fears a resurgence of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Senior administration officials said they have seen no evidence of “ethnic cleansing” of Kurds, and Trump said it’s up to the countries in the region to keep ISIS under control.
“It’s their neighborhood; they have to take care of it,” Trump said. “The job of our military is not to police the world. Other nations must step up and do their fair share. That hasn’t taken place. Today’s breakthrough is a critical step in that direction.”
Esper added: “Look, nobody in the region likes ISIS. We don’t like ISIS. Europeans don’t like ISIS. Turkey doesn’t like ISIS. Syria doesn’t like ISIS. Russia doesn’t like ISIS, there are probably parts of ISIS that doesn’t like ISIS. I think there’s a lot of us who have the shared mutual interest of making sure that ISIS doesn’t resurge and become the threat that it was a few years ago.”