WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Monday cast his decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria's border with Turkey as fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from "endless war" in the Middle East, even as Republican critics and others said he was sacrificing Kurdish fighters and undermining American credibility.
Trump declared that U.S. troops would step aside before an expected Turkish attack on the Kurds, who have fought alongside Americans for years, but he then threatened to destroy the Turks' economy if they went too far.
A Defense Department official said the president's threat to destroy the Turkish economy should make clear that Trump had not approved a Turkish attack on the Kurds. "The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey -- as did the president -- that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria," Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. "The U.S. armed forces will not support, or be involved in any operation."
But Republicans expressed concerns about Trump's move. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned against "a precipitous withdrawal" that would benefit Russia, Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Islamic State militant group. McConnell urged the president to "exercise American leadership."
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican leader, referred to the decision as "a catastrophic mistake." Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called it a "shot in the arm to the bad guys."
"Withdrawing our strategically placed forces along the former ISIS controlled Syrian border with Turkey will open northern Syria to more bloodshed and conflict, including the possible return of ISIS elements," Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., said in a statement.
Trump said he understood criticism from fellow GOP leaders but that he disagreed. He said he could also name supporters of the move, but he didn't.
Syria's Kurds accused the U.S. of turning its back on its allies and risking gains made in the fight against the Islamic State. The Kurdish forces pledged to fight back against a Turkish attack, raising the potential for more warfare in Syria.
"We will not hesitate for a moment in defending our people" against Turkish troops, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said in a statement, adding that it has lost 11,000 fighters in the war against the Islamic State in Syria.
As many as 300,000 people could immediately be driven from their homes in northeast Syria if Turkey launches an offensive, the International Rescue Committee warned Monday.
In recent weeks, the U.S. and Turkey had seemed to reach an accommodation of Turkish concerns about the presence of Kurdish fighters, who are seen in Turkey as a threat. American and Turkish soldiers had been conducting joint patrols in a zone along the border. As part of that work, barriers designed to protect the Kurds were dismantled amid assurances that Turkey would not invade.
Graham said Turkey's NATO membership should be suspended if it launches an offensive into northeastern Syria, threatening Kurdish fighters who acted as a U.S. proxy army during the fight to eliminate the Islamic State's so-called caliphate. Graham, who had talked Trump out of a withdrawal from Syria last December, said letting Turkey invade would be a mistake of historic proportions and would lead to the re-emergence of the Islamic State.
Trump on Monday emphasized his focus on making good on his political pledges.
"I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home and bring them home as rapidly as possible," he said.
But Trump also tweeted a promise to destroy the Turkish economy "if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits."
Among the first to move were about 30 U.S. troops from two outposts who would be in the immediate area of a Turkish invasion. It's unclear whether others among the roughly 1,000 U.S. forces in northeastern Syria would be moved, but officials said there was no plan for any to leave Syria entirely.
THE U.S. DECISION
On Sunday night, the White House declared that the U.S. would get its troops out of the way of the Turkish forces. That announcement came after Trump spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
One official described the White House announcement as a botched effort aimed at making Trump look bold for ending a war. The official said attempts by the Pentagon and State Department to make the statement stronger in its opposition to Turkey's military action were unsuccessful.
That official, like others interviewed, was not authorized to speak on the record and was granted anonymity to comment.
The official added that Erdogan appeared to be reconsidering his earlier resolve because he was relatively quiet Monday.
An official familiar with the Erdogan call said the Turkish president was "ranting" at Trump, saying the safe zone was not working and that Turkey couldn't trust the U.S. military to do what was needed. In reaction, Trump said the U.S. wanted no part of an invasion and would withdraw troops, the official said.
The announcement threw the military situation in Syria into fresh chaos and injected deeper uncertainty into U.S. relations with European allies. A French official, speaking on condition of anonymity on a sensitive topic, said France wasn't informed ahead of time. A Foreign Ministry statement warned Turkey to avoid any action that would harm the international coalition against the Islamic State and noted that the Kurds had been essential allies. The statement omitted any mention of the United States.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia realizes Turkey's need to ensure its security, but he noted that "it's necessary to respect Syria's territorial and political integrity." Peskov wouldn't comment on whether the U.S. withdrawal could push the Kurds to seek a dialogue with the Syrian government.
Trump, meanwhile, criticized his European allies early Monday, specifically in relation to Europe's hesitations about repatriating former Islamic State fighters who left Europe for Syria to fight for the militant jihadi group and who now are imprisoned in Kurdish-controlled camps near the border.
"Europe did not want them back, they said you keep them USA," Trump wrote on Twitter. "I said 'NO, we did you a great favor and now you want us to hold them in U.S. prisons at tremendous cost. They are yours for trials.'"
Trump also defended his withdrawal decision, acknowledging in tweets that "the Kurds fought with us" but adding that they "were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so."Gallery: U.S. Pullback in Syria
"I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home," he wrote.
In his later remarks, Trump asserted that American troops in Syria are not performing useful work. They are "not fighting," he said, adding that they are "just there."
Information for this article was contributed by Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor, Matthew Lee, Zeynep Bilginsoy, Zeina Karam, Sarah El Deeb, Lori Hinnant, Bassem Mroue, Suzan Fraser and Zeke Miller of The Associated Press; by Peter Baker and Lara Jakes of The New York Times; and by James McAuley, Rick Noack and Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post.
A Section on 10/08/2019
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