Weeks after the U.S. withdrew troops from northeast Syria — launching what Kurds have called an “ethnic cleansing” against them by Turkish forces — President Trump declared his Syria policy a success, claiming that the U.S. has “saved the lives of many, many Kurds.”
“We have done them a great service and we’ve done a great job for all of them. And now we’re getting out,” Trump said Wednesday at a White House press conference. “Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand.”
Lacing his victory speech with caveats, Trump said Turkey has enacted a permanent ceasefire against Kurds in Syria, though he acknowledged that promise was “somewhat questionable” given Turkey's history of attacking the population. He also said that the U.S. will lift all sanctions against Turkey ”unless something happens we’re not happy with.”
After a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump announced early this month that the U.S. would remove forces from northeast Syria; days later, the Pentagon said it would remove roughly 1,000 troops from the country.
Members of both political parties swiftly condemned the plan, which they said would threaten the lives of Kurds as well as damage U.S. clout in the region. House Democrats and Republicans condemned the decision in a bipartisan rebuke.
NBC News reported that the decision “blindsided” senior White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials, as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill and U.S. allies abroad.
Shortly after U.S. troops began leaving the country, Turkish forces invaded Kurdish territory. Kurds roundly declared that the U.S., which has long protected them with a military presence in the area, betrayed them. Some threw potatoes and other produce at U.S. troops as they retreated to Iraq.
Under attack from Turkey, Kurds also struggled to keep members of ISIS in prison. (Trump said on Wednesday that “ISIS is under very very strict lock and key, and detention facilities are being strongly maintained,” though he added that some ISIS fighters escaped.)
Turkey previously announced a brief ceasefire against Kurds in Syria, though Kurdish leaders said that the country violated that agreement.
And on Wednesday, shortly before Trump spoke in the White House, news broke that the presidents of Turkey and Russia had reached a new agreement about the policy: It stipulates that if Kurdish forces don’t cede part of their territory, Turkey will continue its attack against them.
But in his speech at the White House, Trump claimed that the U.S. actually prevented Kurds from being killed, and argued that the U.S. has no business being engaged in conflicts in the Middle East.
The comments echo criticisms of the Obama administration that Trump made while he was campaigning for president in 2016: that the U.S. should not act as the police force of the world, or expend resources protecting countries that don’t financially benefit the U.S.
“Now Turkey, Syria, and others in the region must work to ensure that ISIS does not regain any territory. It’s their neighborhood. They have to maintain it, they have to take care of it,” Trump said Wednesday.
“It’s too early to me to be congratulated,” he continued. “But we’ve done a good job. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about Syria in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC, October 23, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)