Trump declares ‘big success’ in Syria, lifts sanctions on Turkey – USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump declared a “big success” in Syria on Wednesday and lifted sanctions on Turkey he imposed after Turkey’s military assault on Syria’s Kurdish forces, a key American ally.
Trump’s move came even as the president’s top envoy to Syria said the U.S. believed Turkey had committed war crimes in its attack on the Kurds. It also came as Russia gained a foothold in Syria and members of Congress expressed growing concerns about Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces stationed on the Syria-Turkey border.
While critics quickly ridiculed Trump’s claim of a victory, the president said a cease-fire had held “beyond most expectations” and Turkey has vowed to stop its combat operation against the Kurdish fighters.
In a 15-minute speech at the White House, Trump said critics of his policy want an endless, unlimited U.S. commitment in a dangerous region.
“They are the ones who got us into the Middle East mess,” he said. “We’ve done a good job.”
The president has come under withering criticism for withdrawing U.S. forces from northeastern Syria, which critics say paved the way for Turkey’s deadly attack on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces.
“Trump’s Syria decision not only will do lasting damage to America’s reputation as a trustworthy ally,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington-based foreign policy research institute.
“It also rejects the importance of American foreign goals more than seven decades in the making: containing an expansionist Russia; supporting allies, particularly those most likely to embrace democracy and human rights, and orienting U.S. policy away from the pre-WWII fiction that Americans at home will be safe from threats abroad — whether China, Iran or ISIS — if the U.S. would only retreat from the world,” Dubowitz said.
A U.S.-brokered cease-fire that suspended fighting between Turkish forces and the Kurds expired on Tuesday.
In an earlier tweet announcing that he would be making a statement, Trump said that cease-fire has held and “combat missions have ended.” . Vice President Mike Pence, who was originally scheduled to travel to Michigan Wednesday morning, joined Trump for his remarks in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House.
But the situation in Syria remains in flux. On the ground, Russia has moved to fill a power vacuum created by the U.S. departure, the Kurds fear an ethnic cleansing by Turkish forces and ISIS fighters are vying for a comeback amid the chaos.
On Tuesday, Russia and Turkey agreed to take joint control of a vital strip of territory along the Syria-Turkey border, a victory for Moscow as the U.S. military continued its withdrawal from Syria. Russian military police crossed the Euphrates River and entered northern Syria on Wednesday morning, according to Kremlin-controlled state media.
“A Russian-dominated Middle East with the Iranian, Turks, Assad and Hezbollah in the sidecar will be quite a ride,” said Dubowitz. “Buckle up.”
Meanwhile, Turkey’s assault, even while suspended, has spawned a humanitarian crisis in Syria. The United Nations estimated Tuesday that about 180,000 Syrians have been forced to leave their homes or shelters, including 80,000 children, all in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
And the pact between Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gives Moscow a crucial foothold in the Middle East amid a power vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal. Under the agreement, Russia and Turkey agreed to work together to remove Kurdish fighters from a 20-mile zone in northern Syria.
“It is clear that the United States has been sidelined,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Tuesday during a hearing on Trump’s actions in Syria.
On Wednesday, Trump’s top envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, faced a barrage of pointed questions from lawmakers in both parties on the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria, which many have said was a betrayal of the Kurdish fighters who helped America defeat the Islamic State’s caliphate in the country.
“We all know that Trump gave Erdogan the green light to charge into northern Syria,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said that led to a “worst-case scenario” in the region.
“We handled (the Kurdish fighters) over to be slaughtered … with no warning and for no good reason,” Engel said. “How could the United States do something so disgraceful.”
Jeffrey defended Trump’s decisions, rejecting the assertion that the president gave Erdogan a green light to attack the Kurds. He said Turkey would have attacked regardless and the U.S. troops in Syria had never been given the mission to defend the Kurds against a Turkish attack.
But Jeffrey conceded that Turkey may have committed war crimes against the Kurds in their assault.
“We’re looking into those allegations and we actually have a set of packages and sent a high level demarche to Ankara demanding an explanation,” Jeffrey told the House committee. He may have been referring to the assassination of Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf.
Trump’s moves in Syria have alienated even his staunchest GOP allies, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.
Tuesday’s agreement between Russia and Turkey has only exacerbated concerns on Capitol Hill.
James Jeffrey questioning:‘It’s clear the US has been sidelined.’ Turkey and Russia agree to joint patrols in Syria
Until two weeks ago, Kurdish forces controlled much of northeastern Syria. After an Oct. 6 phone call between Trump and Erdogan, Turkey invaded Syria and began pushing the Kurds south. Under the U.S.-brokered cease-fire, the Kurdish fighters agreed to pull back deeper into Syria, and Turkey agreed to stop its assault.
Jeffrey defended the cease-fire on Tuesday, saying it has limited Turkey’s territorial gains in Syria – and the chaos that unleashed. But he conceded that hundreds of Kurdish fighters have died in the two-week-long incursion and that ISIS fighters have taken advantage of the mayhem.