President Donald Trump said that American troops should not be placed in harm’s way amid the Turkish army’s military campaign against Kurdish militias in Syria’s northeastern border region.
“If Turkey goes into Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. “It’s not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like us to – would like you to believe,” Efe news reported.
In that regard, Trump defended his decision earlier this month to move a contingent of American special operations troops from a stretch of Syrian borderland to elsewhere in northern Syria and thus allow Turkey to move against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a mainly Kurdish militia group denounced by the Turks as terrorists.
In a second press conference minutes later, Trump once again referred to the withdrawal of US forces from that border strip.
“And I’m pleased to report that in Syria, Turkey – the border – we only had 28 soldiers, not 50. We thought it was 50. Somebody reported 50. It was actually down to 28. They were removed a while ago. All American soldiers are away from the site,” the president said.
Trump added that if Russia, a key military ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, wants to step in and serve as a buffer between Turkish and Syrian forces “that’s really up to them.”
Syrian troops have poured back into cities in their country’s northeast for the first time since 2012, a year after the start of the civil war, after Kurdish-led forces that had controlled that region entered into a Moscow-brokered deal with Damascus aimed at staving off the Turkish incursion.
“It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it,” the president added.
Trump made his remarks before his vice president, Mike Pence, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, arrive this week in Turkey in a bid to press President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to negotiate a cease-fire in Syria.
Trump said his administration, which on Monday imposed sanctions on three Turkish government ministers and announced it will increase tariffs on Turkish steel to 50 per cent, is trying to push NATO ally Turkey to do the right thing.
“In the meantime, 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,” the president said.
He added that the Kurds are “much safer right now” (an apparent allusion to their deal with Damascus) and said that although they were a key ally of the US in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terror organization they are “not angels.”
The Turkish government claims that the YPG is an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has mounted a smoldering insurrection against the state in mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey for more than 30 years.
Trump said in his remarks to reporters on Wednesday that the PKK are “more of a terrorist threat in many ways” than IS.
So it’s a “semi-complicated problem, and I think it’s a problem that we have very nicely under control,” Trump said.
“We have two countries wanting their land. We have one country (Turkey) that wants land perhaps that doesn’t belong to them because they want a 22-mile strip … they want to get terrorists out. You have another country (Syria) that says you can’t have our land. And they’re going to have to work that out,” the president said.
Besides creating a buffer area against the threat of Kurdish groups, Turkey has said it wants to create a “safe zone” in Syria for the resettlement of some two million Syrian refugees who took refuge in Turkey from their nation’s eight-year civil war.