Facing almost unprecedented criticism from members of his own party, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, over pulling U.S. troops from Syria, President Trump offered a rambling defense of his stunning reversal of long-standing American policy.
“We interject ourselves into wars and we interject ourselves in to tribal wars and revolutions and all these things that are very — they’re not the kind of things that you settle the way that we’d like to see it settled. It just doesn’t work that way. Hopefully, it will all be very strong and strongly done. We’re spending tremendous amounts of money,” Trump told reporters gathered at the White House who attended the signing of a new trade agreement with Japan.
Since the reconquest of the ISIS “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, America has kept a small force in northern Syria, protecting its Kurdish allies, who did much of the fighting against ISIS. The Kurdish presence is an irritant to neighboring Turkey, which regards them as potential insurgents. The Kurds have long sought an independent state that would span parts of Iraq and Turkey.
Trump reportedly settled on the move in a late-Sunday phone call with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and by Monday morning there were reports that American soldiers were leaving their positions in Syria, while Turkey was launching a long-planned incursion into Syria to clear out Kurdish fighters, which analysts said could further destabilize the region.
Trump told reporters there were only “50 soldiers in the area you’re talking about.” There are reportedly about 1,000 U.S. troops in various parts of Syria altogether.
Trump campaigned in part on a pledge to reduce American military commitments abroad, but his critics questioned why the effort had to begin with a token contingent that, by Trump’s own description, wasn’t actually engaged in combat.
“I can tell you that the two countries that are the most disappointed that we’re leaving are China and Russia, because they love that we’re bogged down and just watching and spending tremendous amounts of money, instead of continuing to build our forces. We have tremendous amounts of weapons under development now. We have weapons that no one can even believe, we’re going to be making some stops over the next four or five weeks, some we show, some we don’t show. But we’ve rebuilt our nuclear, we’ve renovated and rebuilt nuclear. We’re building submarines the likes of which they’ve never been even thought of before, the genius of them. Hopefully and hope to God we never have to use them, but we are doing what we have to do, but we’ve been there for many years, long, many, many, many years beyond what we were supposed to be. Not fighting, just there.”
Trump’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria caught many Republicans off guard, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said the move would benefit “Russia, Iran and the Assad regime.”
McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, attended the trade-pact signing ceremony, standing directly behind Trump as he began defending the U.S. pullout of Syria, but slowly moved out of view when a reporter asked about McConnell’s stance.
While Trump boasted that many in Washington supported his decision about Syria, few members of Congress — with the exceptions of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. — rushed to his defense.
Instead, politicians who have routinely backed Trump throughout his presidency portrayed the decision as a betrayal of the Kurds and an inexplicable gift to Erdogan, an authoritarian leader whom Trump admires.
“I will do everything I can to sanction Turkey if they step one foot in northeastern Syria,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday.
Dismissing the potential that a pullout of U.S. troops could further destabilize the region and lead to the possible slaughter of the Kurdish soldiers who have fought Islamic State radicals alongside American forces, Trump said that the Turks and the Kurds were “natural enemies.”
That, of course, is why the U.S. kept troops there in the first place.
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