WASHINGTON — President Trump threw Middle East policy into turmoil on Monday with a series of conflicting signals after his vow to withdraw US forces from the region touched off an uprising among congressional Republicans and protests by America’s allies.
Defending his decision to clear the way for a Turkish military operation against America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria, announced in a White House statement Sunday night, Trump said it was “time for us to get out” and let others “figure the situation out.”
But his move touched off a broad rebuke by Republicans, including some of his staunchest allies, in some of the sharpest language they have leveled against a Trump foreign policy decision. In response, the president pivoted sharply and said he would restrain Turkey.
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” the president wrote on Twitter. He did not explain what would be off limits, but aides insisted he had not given a green light to an invasion.
A Defense Department official said the president’s threat to destroy the Turkish economy signaled 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 US armed forces will not support, or be involved in any operation.”
Republicans, however, were not sure. Even after Trump recalibrated his message, Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, warned against “a precipitous withdrawal” that would benefit Russia, Iran, President Bashar Assad of Syria, and the Islamic State. The Kentucky Republican sharply urged the president to “exercise American leadership.”
The president’s pronouncements kept supporters, foreign leaders, military officers, and his own aides off balance as they tried to interpret his meaning and anticipate its consequences. The president has long agitated to get the United States out of overseas wars only to be pulled back by the national security establishment and congressional allies.
In this case, Trump seemed to be responding instinctively to an unexpected comment by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey near the end of a telephone call on Sunday that otherwise focused on trade and defense assistance. Erdogan, who has long threatened to send troops over the border against Kurdish fighters allied with the United States, told Trump that he was finally moving forward.
Trump told Erdogan that he did not support an incursion, according to aides. But rather than hold back Erdogan anymore, Trump got off the call and promptly issued a late-night statement that he would pull out about 50 US special operations troops near the border who have served as a trip wire deterring Turkey from sending forces into Syria.
By Monday morning, he was bombarded with complaints from both Republicans and Democrats, who charged that such a move would abandon the Kurds, some of the United States’ most loyal and effective allies in the region, while emboldening some of America’s most threatening enemies.
“This is a big win for Iran and Assad, a big win for ISIS,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and usually one of the president’s most vocal backers, said on Fox News. “I will do everything I can to sanction Turkey if they step one foot in northeastern Syria. That will sever my relationship with Turkey. I think most of the Congress feels that way.”
Graham said he would also introduce a nonbinding resolution asking Trump to reconsider his move, which he called “shortsighted and irresponsible.” The president’s assertion that the Islamic State has been defeated is “the biggest lie being told by the administration,” Graham added. Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said, “The president’s decision to abandon our Kurd allies in the face of an assault by Turkey is a betrayal.”
Nikki R. Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, joined the chorus. “We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back,” she tweeted. “The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend.”
Left virtually on his own, Trump found support on Capitol Hill from Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. The president “once again fulfills his promises to stop our endless wars and have a true America First foreign policy,” Paul tweeted.
Trump came to office promising to get the country out of wars, contending that the military’s involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had largely been a waste of lives and money, with little to show for it.
A similarly sudden decision last winter to pull US troops out of Syria prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign, and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, accelerated his own planned departure in protest.
Trump later walked back his decision in Syria to some extent but has been frustrated to not be doing more to extricate the United States from entanglements in the region.
The Kurdish forces in the area, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, have been a critical element in recapturing territory once controlled by the Islamic State. But Turkey has long considered the Kurdish fighters to be terrorists and has lobbied the United States to abandon support for them.
Trump’s initial messages on Monday morning focused not on holding back Turkey but on pulling back from the region.
“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,” Trump wrote. “WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out.”
He offered little sympathy for the fate of America’s Kurdish allies: “The Kurds fought with us,” he wrote, “but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.”
Meeting with reporters later in the day, he recalled his promises to get out of Middle East wars. “I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home and bring them home as quickly as possible,” Trump said.
But even as Trump talked in global terms, administration officials stressed the limited nature of the current action. Special operations troops near the border will be relocated in coming days but the total 1,000 troops in Syria would not immediately come home.
Trump has been particularly irritated that the United States continues to pay to detain thousands of Islamic State fighters captured in recent years. For months, he has tried to pressure European states and others to take those fighters who originated from there, only to run into strong resistance.
But if Turkey moves against the Kurds, the SDF could abandon camps to fight the Turks, potentially allowing some 10,000 captured Islamic State fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, to escape. A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity under administration ground rules, said Trump told Erdogan that if he did send in troops, they would be responsible for securing the prisoners.
The United States has suspended long-standing efforts to create a safe zone in Syria near the Turkish border that would have kept Turkish forces and Syrian fighters at a distance from each other. But another administration official said that the United States was now controlling the air space over northeast Syria in part to prevent Turkish aggression.
The prospect that a US withdrawal would lead to a Turkish incursion alarmed European allies. The French and Germans issued statements expressing deep concern. A State Department official said the international reaction to a possible Turkish operation had been “devastating” and acknowledged it would destabilize the region.