WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday called a Turkish military operation along the border with Syria “a bad idea” but reiterated his opposition to “endless, senseless wars,” striking a far milder tone than outraged members of Congress, foreign allies and officials in his own administration, who said the incursion must be stopped.
And later in the day, after issuing that statement, Trump seemed dismissive of the plight of the Syrian Kurdish fighters who are in Turkey’s cross hairs.
Speaking to reporters, the president said that while the stateless Kurds had fought alongside American troops against the Islamic State, or ISIS, they had done so out of self-interest, “for their land,” and noted that “they didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us in Normandy.”
“With all that being said, we like the Kurds,” he added.
In his earlier statement, Trump said he was holding Turkey responsible for preventing the release of Islamic State fighters who were being held captive in the area and for ensuring “that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape or form.”
Even so, Trump limited his criticism of Turkey, making no mention of taking punitive action, while Republicans on Capitol Hill were sharply critical of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for following through with a plan he disclosed to Trump in a phone call on Sunday. And Pentagon officials privately expressed their anger over Trump’s sudden and unplanned shift in what had been U.S. policy for years to oppose Turkey’s longtime desire to seize territory across its border with Syria.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of Trump’s who often golfs with the president, said in an interview that he had reached an agreement with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to offer “severe” sanctions legislation against Turkey, which Graham predicted would have “widespread bipartisan support.”
“What you’ll be seeing in the coming days is Congress filling in the vacuum,” Graham said, likening Trump’s posture to President Barack Obama’s deep-seated aversion to engagement in Syria. “Obama basically took a pass on Syria and the rest is history. We can’t afford to make that same mistake twice.”
In a joint statement, Graham and Van Hollen said their bill would punish senior Turkish government officials and ban U.S. military transactions with Turkey. The measure would also impose sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a sophisticated Russian-made missile defense system. Trump has avoided enforcing those sanctions, which members of Congress insist are mandatory under a 2017 law meant to penalize countries for doing business with Russia’s military.
“This invasion will ensure the resurgence of ISIS in Syria, embolden America’s enemies including al-Qaida, Iran and Russia, and launch yet another endless conflict in what had been, until today, one of the most safe and stable areas of Syria and a region experimenting with the best model of local governance currently available in that war-torn country,” the senators said in their statement.
Trump’s step-back posture toward the Turkish incursion is also alienating some of the evangelical leaders who are his core supporters but who fear that Christian minorities in northeastern Syria — some of whom have been under protection from the Kurds — would face danger from attack by Muslim-majority Turkey.
The evangelical leader Franklin Graham appealed to his followers on Twitter to pray that Trump might “reconsider his decision,” adding: “The Turks have a dismal record on human rights & they can’t be trusted. Pray for the Kurds, Christians, & other minorities in this region.”
But Trump was not without his defenders in Congress. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican who often speaks with the president and has repeatedly pushed him to avoid foreign conflicts, wrote on Twitter that Trump “is stopping the endless wars and we will be stronger as a result. The Cheney/Graham Neocon War Caucus has cost us too much fighting endless wars.”
But prominent Democrats also denounced the Turkish move, and criticized Trump for failing to coordinate his decision to pull back American troops from the area — in effect clearing the way for Turkey to attack — with U.S. generals and allies.
At the Pentagon, where more than five years of fighting alongside Kurdish troops in Iraq and Syria has now given way to standing aside as those same allies are attacked, some officials said there was more anger than they had seen at any point in Trump’s presidency.
As recently as last week, Defense Department officials had been assured by Turkish military officials that they were not seeking to launch an invasion of Syria. Nor were officials expecting Trump, in his Sunday call with Erdogan, to open the door for a Turkish offensive by deciding to remove the 50 to 100 U.S. troops in the northeastern portion of Syria, where Erdogan wants to create a “safe zone.”
A person briefed about the call said the discussion between Trump and Erdogan was wide-ranging, until Erdogan, in the second half of the call, complained that the United States was not fully complying with an agreement struck with Turkey in September to jointly create such a safe zone. Erdogan said he intended to unilaterally establish one immediately.
Trump demurred, evidently believing that Erdogan would not be willing to risk the president’s ire. But Erdogan effectively “called the president’s bluff,” the person said. What followed was a scramble to move U.S. personnel from harm’s way in northern Syria.
In the days since, Trump has made repeated references to his desire to withdraw from Syria and avoid the “stupid endless wars” against which he campaigned in 2016. But that has furthered the impression — both in the United States but, perhaps more important, in Turkey — that Trump had blessed Erdogan’s proposed incursion.
Erdogan sees Syria’s Kurdish fighters as an enemy, and wants to flush them out of a safe zone along his country’s southern border with Syria, which has been devastated by a civil war of more than eight years. The conflict has produced an exodus of roughly 1 million Syrian refugees into Turkey whom Ankara wants to relocate into a secured zone across the border.
On Monday, Trump warned that if Turkey did anything that he considered “off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.” But he has not clearly defined those limits.
That supports the view of analysts who say the real red line for Trump and many members of Congress is not a matter of territory but rather the killing of Kurdish fighters.
Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he believed that Erdogan would calibrate any offensive to limit casualties that would prompt a major response from Congress and potentially humiliate Trump.
“I would say this is a war that is not a war,” Cagaptay said. “We’re not going to see fighting of epic proportions. It’s coordinated and pre-orchestrated.”
In his remarks to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Trump said that he was watching to see how Erdogan’s offensive unfolds.
“We’ll see how he does it,” Trump said. “He could do it in a soft manner; he could do it in a very tough manner. And if he does it unfairly, he’s going to pay a very big economic price.”
But national security officials are especially worried about how a Turkish offensive could affect the continuing fight against the Islamic State group, which — thanks in large measure to the Kurdish-led forces now under attack — has lost its territorial holdings in Syria but which officials say has been gaining new momentum in both Syria and Iraq.
“We know that terrorism in Syria does not stay in Syria,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, D-N.H. in a statement. “President Erdogan, despite his claims, does not have the support of the international community for this operation and he refuses to assure the U.S. that he will guard ISIS detention facilities in the area and prevent ISIS from once again gaining a foothold in the region. I’m afraid we are dangerously close to the point of no return.”