By Alexandra Alper and Tuvan Gumrukcu
WASHINGTON/ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he had no problem if Russia helped Syria in a conflict with Turkey and rejected criticism of his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria that exposed Kurdish allies, calling it “strategically brilliant.”
Trump’s decision to pull out American forces ahead of a Turkish offensive into northern Syria has shattered the relative calm there and he has been criticized for abandoning Kurdish militia who helped the United States defeat Islamic State militants in the region.
Washington’s hasty exit has created a land rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition the formerly U.S.-protected Kurdish area.
Syrian troops accompanied by Russian forces entered the city of Kobani, a strategically important border city and a potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian war, reported.
Speaking to reporters as he met with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in the Oval Office and then later during a joint news conference, Trump said the Kurds were “not angels” and he said it might be necessary for Russian-backed Syria and Turkey to “fight it out.”
In the Oval Office with Mattarella, Trump said: “Our soldiers are not in harm’s way – as they shouldn’t be, as two countries fight over land that has nothing to do with us.”
He also defended his move to get U.S. troops out as part of his wider effort to bring Americans home from “endless wars” despite being excoriated by members of his own Republican party.
“I viewed the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be for the United States strategically brilliant,” Trump said.
“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine. It’s a lot of sand,” he later said. “So you have Syria and you have Turkey. They’re going to argue it out, maybe they’re going to fight it out. But our men aren’t going to get killed over it.”
Acting last week after a phone call on Oct. 6 with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Trump abruptly upended five years of U.S. policy with his decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds and to withdraw first about 50 special operations forces and then the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops in northern Syria.
“This is a mistake worse than what (Barack) Obama did” when the former president withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, Senator Lindsay Graham, usually among Trump’s strongest supporters, told reporters.
U.S. OFFICIALSHEAD TO TURKEY
Trump’s action is widely seen as giving a green light for Turkish forces last week to attack the Syrian Kurdish militia that were Washington’s close allies in the fight against Islamic State militants who once held swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Trump dispatched some of his top aides to Turkey on Wednesday for emergency talks to try to persuade Ankara to halt an assault on northern Syria, while Russian troops swept into territory abandoned by U.S. forces.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien arrived in Turkey aiming to meet Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hope to meet on Thursday with Erdogan.
The Turkish leader has insisted there will be no ceasefire, and said he might call off a visit to the United States in November because of the “very big disrespect” shown by U.S. politicians.
He also denounced Washington for taking the “unlawful, ugly step” of imposing criminal charges against a Turkish state bank over charges it broke sanctions on Iran. Washington says the case is unrelated to politics.
Turkey’s assault has spawned a humanitarian crisis, with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump, accused by congressional leaders, including fellow Republicans, of betraying loyal U.S. allies, the Kurds.
Syrian government forces, backed by Washington’s adversaries Russia and Iran in the more than eight year civil war, have meanwhile taken advantage of the power vacuum left by U.S. troops to advance swiftly into the largest swath of territory previously outside their grasp.
Trump said he thought Pence and Erdogan would have a “successful meeting” adding that if they did not, U.S. sanctions and tariffs “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy.”
Senior Republicans voiced dismay.
“I’m sorry that we are where we are,” the characteristically understated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, telling reporters he hoped Pence and Pompeo “can somehow repair the damage” during their trip to Ankara.
The House of Representatives voted 354 to 60 to condemn Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. forces in a non-binding resolution, with dozens of Republicans joining the majority Democrats in favour.
Washington announced sanctions to punish Turkey on Monday, but Trump’s critics said the steps, mainly a steel tariffs hike and a pause in trade talks, were too feeble to have an impact.
On Tuesday, U.S. prosecutors’ charges were unveiled against Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank over allegations it took part in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. Halkbank denies wrongdoing and called the case part of the sanctions against Turkey.
Erdogan’s spokesman said Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing retaliation for U.S. sanctions.
The Turkish advance, and Washington’s decision to evacuate its own forces, have brought the two biggest militaries in NATO close to confrontation on the battlefield. The United States has complained about Turkish artillery fire near its troops.
The Syrian Observatory said Russian troops had crossed the Euphrates River to advance to Kobani’s outskirts.
Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.
Hours after Washington announced its pullout on Sunday, the Kurds made a deal with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Tuvan Gumrukcu; additional reporting by Mert Ozkan and by Rick Cowan, Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Dominic Evans in Turkey; writing by Peter Graff and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)