National security adviser Robert O'Brien clarified Sunday that despite President Trump’s acknowledgment of Russian cooperation with the U.S. special operations mission that left Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dead, the country “‘is not an ally of the United States.”
“When our interests overlap with Russia there’s no reason we shouldn’t work with them,” O'Brien told NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd but added, “Russia is not an ally of the United States. And look, Russia presents a great danger to the United States and [that is] something we keep an eye on every single day.”
In a Sunday morning address, the president announced that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi died in a raid by American troops in northwest Syria the previous night.
Before thanking “the great intelligence professionals who helped make this very successful journey possible” and the soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines involved in the operation, Trump expressed gratitude to Russia for its part in the operation.
“This raid was impeccable and could only have taken place with the acknowledgment and help of certain other nations and people,” he told reporters. “I want to thank the nations of Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and I also want to thank the Syrian Kurds for certain support they were able to give us. This was a very, very dangerous mission.”
No foreign troops participated in the operation, which was carried out without U.S. casualties. Russian, Turkish and Syrian forces patrol the ground and airspace in the region, and their cooperation was necessary in not attacking the American aircraft involved in the raid.
Trump has received sharp criticism that his decision earlier this month to pull troops out of northern Syria allows Russia to fill the void and allowed Turkey to push out Kurdish militias that have been fighting ISIS alongside American troops. Turkish troops and allied militias entered Northern Syria days after the U.S. withdrawal. Since then, both the U.S. and Russia have brokered ceasefires, with erratic results.
Todd asked Trump’s new national security adviser if Russia is an ally to the United States in this fight with ISIS while simultaneously being an adversary when it comes to Ukraine, which it has invaded. The U.S. is supporting Ukraine in the ongoing war.
"Let me make it very clear. Russia is not an ally of the United States," O’Brien said.
“First country he thanked today,” Todd interjected.
“There are times when our interest overlaps with the interests of Russia,” O’Brien responded. “Last night it overlapped. We didn’t want Russian air defense missiles being shot at our men and women who were executing this raid ... and they don’t like ISIS.”
O’Brien went on to say, “The Kurds played an important role in the operation, and we’re grateful for the Kurds and the [Syrian Democratic Forces] and our allies there.”
Trump, who O’Brien lauded for his “courageous decision” to greenlight the mission, said he did not regret the decision to withdraw from northern Syria.
When speaking with reporters about his announcement, Trump was asked if the pullout of U.S. troops was connected to the raid. He said the intelligence locating al-Baghdadi in the region was coincidental to the withdrawal he ordered on Oct. 7.
“The pullout had nothing to do with this,” he said.
“We don’t want to keep soldiers between Syria and Turkey for the next 200 years,” Trump continued. “We’re out. But we are leaving soldiers to keep the oil. And we may have to fight for the oil.”
“We want to be home; I want our soldiers home,” Trump said. “I’ll tell you who loves us being there: Russia and China. Because while they build their military we’re depleting our military there. So Russia loves us being there. Now Russia likes us being there for two reasons because we kill ISIS, we kill terrorists and they are very close to Russia.”
Trump said the U.S. had been pursuing al-Baghdadi for years and described “capturing or killing” the leader as “the top national security priority of my administration.” He said the intelligence that led to finding al-Baghdadi came together in recent months, and the operation had been planned for about two weeks. Before carrying out the raid, Trump said he alerted Russia.
“We spoke to the Russians and we told them we’re coming in,” he said. “And they said thank you for telling us. They were very good.”
Trump said Russia wasn’t told the specifics of the operation, but “we did tell them we think you’re going to be very happy. Because, again, they hate ISIS as much as we do.”
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