WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – As Turkey’s long-threatened attack into northeast Syria began on Wednesday, President Donald Trump defended his decision to withdraw US forces from the area and take no meaningful measure to oppose the Turkish assault.
A presidential statement explained that the US “does not endorse this attack” and has told Turkey “this operation is a bad idea.” It also added, “Turkey has committed to protecting civilians” and “religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment.”
Trump’s criticism of the attack, such as it was, fell significantly short of that voiced by European parties, such as France’s Foreign Minister, who “strongly condemned” the assault, while calling on Ankara to halt its offensive, as did Germany’s Foreign Minister.
Turkish authorities say there is an understanding between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Writing in The Washington Post on Tuesday, Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, claimed that in Erdogan’s Sunday phone call with the US President, “Trump agreed to transfer the leadership of the counter-Islamic State campaign to Turkey.”
Similarly, Gulnur Aybet a Senior Adviser to Erdogan, told CNN’s Christian Amanpour on Wednesday, “President Trump and President Erdogan have reached an understanding over precisely what this operation is.”
EXCLUSIVE:— Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour) October 9, 2019
The White House says that it “has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.”
But a senior adviser to Erdogan, @Gulnuray, tells me: “President Trump and President Erdogan have reached an understanding over precisely what this operation is.” pic.twitter.com/XLB8dZ80sq
As Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and currently an instructor at The Institute of World Politics, suggested to Kurdistan 24, Trump expects that Erdogan will take care of the Islamic State in Syria and allow him to withdraw US forces. That explains why Trump did not try to actually block the Turkish attack, which he could have done.
Trump, himself, said he can “wipe out” Turkey’s economy, if Ankara takes actions in Syria that are unacceptable. “So why wait?” Davis asked. “Why not do it now—and stop this attack?”
Indeed, Trump spoke on Wednesday afternoon, and his remarks suggest that he has bought into broader aspects of Erdogan’s designs for northeast Syria, above all resettling Syrian refugees there, in effect creating an “Arab belt” between the Kurds in Syria and the Kurds in Turkey.
Turkey currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, predominantly Sunni Arabs. As Trump told reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Erdogan “wants to have people go back to where they came from, go back to Syria.”
Erdogan is “holding millions of people that would be all over the place, if he wasn't holding them,” Trump continued. So “he wants to have them go back into the area that he's looking at. But we’ll see. We’ll see how he does it.”
“He can do it in a soft manner,” Trump continued.“He can do it in a very tough manner. And if he does it unfairly, he's going to pay a very big economic price.”
Most of those refugees, however, are not from northeast Syria. They come from elsewhere in Syria, and even if they are moved voluntarily into that area, if is done in large numbers, it will change the demography.
Indeed, Gen. Mazloum Abdi, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main ally against the Islamic State group in Syria, warned of something like that in a telephone conversation with veteran Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, as Ignatius reported on Monday.
“The Syrian Kurdish commander said the real danger was that Turkish forces would attempt ‘ethnic cleansing’— evicting Kurds from their ancestral lands in northeast Syria and installing Syrian Arab refugees who have been living in camps in Turkey since the Syrian civil war began,” Ignatius wrote.
Meanwhile, opposition to Trump’s decision is mounting in Congress. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina) announced on Wednesday that he had reached an agreement with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D, Maryland) on a bill that would impose “severe sanctions on Turkey for their invasion of Syria.”
I am pleased to have reached a bipartisan agreement with Senator @ChrisVanHollen on severe sanctions against Turkey for their invasion of Syria.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 9, 2019
While the Administration refuses to act against Turkey, I expect strong bipartisan support. pic.twitter.com/Ph5fIVt7k3
Congress is currently on recess, but the senators will introduce their bill next week, when congress returns. Among other things, it will prohibit US military sales to Turkey and require Trump to impose other economic sanctions on Ankara for its purchase of the advanced Russian air defense system, the S-400.
Asked about that bill, Trump responded incoherently, as if he did not recognize (or did not want to recognize) that the US Congress could take measures that would hamstring his understanding with Erdogan.
“Lindsey Graham is talking about imposing economic sanctions on Turkey over this incursion into Syria. What do you think about that?,” a reporter asked.
“Well, I think it's okay,” Trump responded. “I've already told that to President Erdogan. Far more than sanctions--I'll do far more than sanctions.”
Trump was speaking of imposing sanctions, if Turkey committed an atrocity in the future. The bill sponsored by Graham and Van Hollen would impose sanctions now.
As Gen. John Allen (US Marine Corps, Retired), formerly Special Presidential Envoy to the Defeat ISIS Coalition, and now President of the Brookings Institution, told CNN, “It’s chaos.”
Editing by Nadia Riva