WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Ten days of flip-flopping US positions regarding Turkey’s attack on northeast Syria saw another flop on Wednesday, as US President Donald Trump repeatedly suggested that Washington had little interest in the issue.
Last Sunday, October 6, Trump appeared to acquiesce in the Turkish assault. Three days later, the attack began.
As the consequences of the Turkish assault became clear—about which Trump’s national security advisors had repeatedly warned—the administration appeared to reverse itself and oppose the attack, while calling for an immediate halt to the fighting.
As part of the shift, it was decided that two senior officials—Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—would travel to Ankara to press Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accept a ceasefire. They were scheduled to leave on Wednesday evening.
But Trump undercut his envoys, before they even departed Washington. Twice on Wednesday, Trump reverted to his initial position, asserting that the US had few interests in northeast Syria. He even disparaged the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s principal partner in the war against the Islamic State group in Syria.
A resounding rebuke in the House of Representatives followed. The House voted overwhelmingly in support of a non-binding resolution that criticized Trump’s decision to end US efforts to block Turkey’s attack against Syrian Kurdish forces, while calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.
Later in the day, Trump met with the Congressional leadership. The meeting proved so acrimonious that the Democratic leadership actually walked out of it.
Wednesday’s remarkable events began as Trump welcomed Italian President Sergio Mattarella to the White House that morning. In opening remarks, Trump told journalists there was no reason for the US to keep troops in Syria.
The question at hand, Trump said, was a border issue, and “it’s not our border.” Indeed, Trump described the situation as “strategically brilliant” from a US perspective.
“Our soldiers are out of there,” Trump continued. “Our soldiers are totally safe.”
Yet US forces took very few losses in Syria. The SDF did most of the fighting and suffered more than 11,000 casualties. Many of those US troops who fought alongside them are furious.
“The Kurds are America’s only dependable and loyal ally in the Middle East,” is what one Special Operations Forces officer told a retired US Army officer, who, equally incensed, repeated that to Kurdistan 24.
Yet in defending his position, Trump repeatedly insulted those allies. The Kurds are “not angels,” he told journalists before his meeting with the Italian President.
After that meeting, Trump even went further. “The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which is a part of the Kurds,” Trump said, “is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat, in many ways, than ISIS.”
As Michael Pregent, a Senior Fellow at The Hudson Institute, tweeted, “‘PKK is worse than ISIS’?? Bad yes, worse?? No.”
Pregent also noted that Trump “undermines Pence and Pompeo before they land” in Ankara “by stating that Turkey's incursion into Syria is between Ankara and Damascus—unbelievable.”
Most questions at the presidents’ joint press appearances were directed at Trump, but the comments of the Italian president suggested he did not agree with his host.
Although Trump did not criticize Turkey, Mattarella certainly did. “Italy, in line with the EU’s position, condemns the Turkish operations,” he said, citing the casualties it has caused; the refugee crisis that has ensued; and the increased risk that the Islamic State will re-emerge.
Mattarella even quoted a Latin phrase, "Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas,” which he translated as “Something more important than my friendship is the truth.”
“Relationships and friendships,” Mattarella continued, “don't mean that we can't say that the Turkish attack on Syria is a serious mistake.”
Criticism from Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—was far more direct, with The New York Times describing the exchange with Trump as “an extraordinary confrontation.”
The three Democratic leaders who walked out of the White House meeting told journalists afterwards that Trump had called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, California) a “third-rate politician” and told her, “some of ISIS were communists, and that might make you happy.”
No one has explained why Trump would think the Islamic State group includes communists, particularly as earlier in the day, he had said, “Russia hates ISIS as much as the United States does,” suggesting the US could let Russia fight the terrorist group, as “it is much closer” to the Middle East.
In the meeting with Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D, New York) cited former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who warned on Sunday that Trump’s decision would lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State.
Trump responded by calling Mattis “the world’s most overrated general.”
“You know why?” Trump continued. “Because he wasn’t tough enough. I captured ISIS. Mattis said it would take two years. I captured them in one month,” the Times reported.
The Democratic leaders spoke scathingly of Trump. Pelosi suggested that he had had a “meltdown,” because of the size of the House vote censuring him for abandoning Syria’s Kurds: 354 to 60, including 194 Republicans, who voted with the Democrats.
Trump’s statements also elicited strong criticism from Republicans, including senators whom Trump will need, after, as expected, the House of Representatives impeaches him later this year.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, Kentucky) responded to Trump’s slurs against the Kurds, as he began his weekly press conference.
“I want to express my gratitude to the Kurds,” McConnell said. “They were great fighters and we had a terrific alliance with them.”
“I’m sorry that we are where we are,” he continued. “I hope that the Vice-President and Secretary of State can somehow repair the damage.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s close ally on Capitol Hill, was extremely critical. “To rely on Russia and Iran to protect us against the rise of ISIS is, quite frankly, insane,” he said on Wednesday.
He also called Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria “the most screwed-up decision I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress” (i.e. since 1995.)
Graham also vowed to hit Erdogan with “sanctions from hell,” adding “I’m going to break this thug’s back.” It is a position that enjoys strong, bipartisan support in Congress.
Editing by Nadia Riva