President Donald Trump said Wednesday that Turkey’s incursion of northern Syria “has nothing to do with us” and added that former US allies – the Kurds – are “not angels.”
He also falsely claimed the Kurds “are much safer now,” despite his recent decision to pull US forces out of northern Syria – where the US was fighting alongside Kurds in the region.
“Our soldiers are not in harm’s way, as they shouldn’t be, as two countries fight over land that has nothing to do with us. And the Kurds are much safer now. The Kurds know how to fight and as I said, they’re not angels,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
“But they fought with us. We paid a lot of money for them to fight with us and that’s OK. They did well when they fought with us. They didn’t do so well when they didn’t fight with us,” he added.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, slammed the President’s comments Wednesday, saying they completely undercut diplomatic efforts by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who are about to travel to Turkey.
“I hope President Trump is right in his belief that Turkeys invasion of Syria is of no concern to us, abandoning the Kurds won’t come back to haunt us, ISIS won’t reemerge, and Iran will not fill the vacuum created by this decision. However, I firmly believe that if President Trump continues to make such statements this will be a disaster worse than President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq,” Graham tweeted.
“The statements by President Trump about Turkey’s invasion being of no concern to us also completely undercut Vice President Pence and Sec. Pompeo’s ability to end the conflict,” he added.
Despite earlier reports to the contrary, Pence and Pompeo are expected to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday to discuss the situation in Syria, according to a spokesman for the Turkish presidency.
Trump directed the high-profile delegation that includes Pence, Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien to broker a ceasefire with Ankara amid the Turkish incursion into Syria.
But a challenging trip was made even more tricky when Trump appeared to undermine its purpose in remarks at the White House on Wednesday, saying that the US “shouldn’t be losing lives” because “it’s not our border.”
Trump responded to Graham’s criticism during a joint press conference with the president of Italy at the White House later Wednesday.
“Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years,” he said, adding the South Carolina Republican “should focus on the judiciary (committee),” of which he is chairman.
Trump wishes Russia luck in Syria
During his Oval Office remarks, Trump also defended withdrawing troops from northeastern Syria by saying that sanctions on Turkey are more effective at maintaining stability between the Turks and Kurds.
Trump also cited Kurds leaving US forces fighting against Iraq when the US did not fund them.
“The Kurds are actually pulling back substantially from Turkey and Syria’s pulling in,” he added.
He also said that Russian support in Syria is “fine” with him, adding that Russia can handle the battle against ISIS there.
“Syria will probably have a partner of Russia … I wish them a lot of luck,” Trump said.
“If Russia wants to get involved with Syria – that’s really up to them,” he added. “They have a problem with Turkey, they have a problem at the border – it’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it.”
“By the way, every player hates ISIS … Syria more than us. Russia more than us. They’ve done a big number on Russia. And we’re over there fighting ISIS. But they’re over there fighting ISIS too. They can handle it. And they should handle it. We can fight our own battles on our own territories,” he later added.
As House Democrats prepared to vote on a resolution condemning Trump’s policy shift in Syria on Wednesday, Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Foreign Relations committee, poured cold water on the notion that Congress can make much of a difference in urging the White House to reverse course.
“There’s not much that Congress can do if the President is doubling down on his support for the Turkish invasion,” said Murphy. “Let’s not kid ourselves. Congress can’t run the day-to-day foreign policy of this nation. Only the President does that. The President has been crystal clear today that he is going to support the annihilation of the Kurds.”
He also said potential sanctions legislation to punish Turkey for its military offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria “will only work if the executive branch implements them.”
“Trump is telling everyone who will listen that he wants Turkey inside Syria. So how would sanctions work if the executive branch doesn’t support implementing them?” he asked. “The focus has to be on this President and holding him accountable for the catastrophic decision that he made, and nobody in Congress should pretend that we can substitute policies set by Congress for the foreign policy of the President.”
The House went on to approve that resolution. The vote was 354-60 with four members voting present.
Trump falsely claims he is bringing US troops home
Trump on Wednesday repeatedly falsely claimed that he is bringing US troops stationed in Syria “back home.” He did so during his news conference with the Italian president and earlier in the day in the Oval Office.
Those troops are instead being redeployed in other parts of the Middle East, with many moving to Iraq.
Trump announced as much in a statement just two days ago.
“I am withdrawing the remaining United States service members from northeast Syria. As United States forces have defeated the ISIS physical caliphate, United States troops coming out of Syria will now redeploy and remain in the region to monitor the situation and prevent a repeat of 2014, when the neglected threat of ISIS raged across Syria and Iraq,” Trump said in a White House statement on Monday.
Additionally, Trump just approved the deployment of an additional 1,800 troops to Saudi Arabia.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Haley Byrd contributed reporting