Donald Trump said his withdrawal of US troops from north-east Syria had created a “strategically brilliant” outcome, as Mike Pence, vice-president, prepared to fly to Ankara to persuade Turkey to halt its military incursion into Syria.
Mr Trump’s comments came as Turkey continued the military operation it launched a week ago, just days after the US president appeared to give his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a green light to launch a campaign against Kurdish forces who had been helping the US fight Isis.
“I view the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be, for the United States, strategically brilliant. Our soldiers are out of there. Our soldiers are totally safe,” Mr Trump said, as he welcomed Sergio Mattarella, Italian president, to the White House on Wednesday.
Do people want us to start shooting at a Nato member? That would be a first
The White House has spent the past week attempting to repair the damage Mr Trump has done, as the president came under widespread domestic criticism from Democrats and Republicans who believe that he has made one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of his presidency.
US officials have argued that Turkey, a fellow member of the Nato military alliance, was intent on the operation against Kurdish forces in Syria, which it views as terrorists, and was not responsive to US pressure. They have argued that Mr Trump took a prudent decision to remove US troops to ensure they would not be caught in the conflict in north-east Syria.
“Do people want us to start shooting at a Nato member? That would be a first,” Mr Trump said from the Oval Office.
Mr Pence will depart Washington on Wednesday evening as the head of a high-level delegation to Ankara in a bid to persuade Mr Erdogan to agree a ceasefire. He will be joined by Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, and Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser, who was set to arrive in Turkey on Wednesday.
“We need them to stand down, we need a ceasefire, at which point we can begin to put this all back together again,” Mr Pompeo told Fox News.
Mr Pompeo stressed that the US had put sanctions on Turkish officials this week in an effort to convince Mr Erdogan to reverse course, but said the US wanted to preserve relations with Ankara.
“Our goal here isn’t to break the relationship with Turkey,” Mr Pompeo told the television network. “Our goal . . . is to deny Turkey the capacity to continue to engage in this behaviour.”
US military officials have expressed frustration at the move by Mr Trump, which experts warn could undo efforts to defeat Isis.
Republicans have also been critical of the president for abandoning the Kurdish forces in Syria who have taken huge casualties in recent years leading the campaign against Isis jihadis.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump said Syria was now protecting the Kurds — in a recognition that Kurdish fighters had been forced to create an alliance with Damascus after they were abandoned by the US.
“Syria is protecting the Kurds. That is good,” Mr Trump said, before later adding that the Kurds “were not angels” — a comment that is likely to spark condemnation from Republicans.
Mr Erdogan said on Wednesday that Turkish forces and the Syrian rebels fighting alongside them had “cleansed” 1,220 square km of north-east Syria of the Kurdish militias that they are targeting, with the stated aim of clearing territory around 12 times that size. But that effort has been complicated not only by US pressure but also the Kurdish groups’ deal with Damascus.
The agreement has seen regime troops — accompanied by their Russian backers — fill the vacuum left by the departure of US troops as they have moved to establish a presence in several border towns.
So far the memorandum of understanding between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, only covers areas where Syrian army troops will deploy to ward off further Turkish advances. But analysts and diplomats say the return of regime forces to north-east Syria, where Kurdish politicians had carved out a self-administered enclave called Rojava, paves the way for the Assad regime to reimpose control over almost a third of the country.
The week of fighting has killed more than 70 civilians, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled for safety.
The ongoing violence and regime’s return has also complicated aid deliveries needed to help the injured, homeless and people living in displacement camps. Many international humanitarian organisations have historically been unable to work in regime territories.
Made Ferguson, Mercy Corps’ deputy Syria country director, described the situation as “our nightmare scenario”.
Clashes continued between Kurdish forces and Turkey’s Syrian proxies — extremist militias who are opposed to the Syrian regime. For the first time in seven years, Syrian troops have arrived in major northern towns including Manbij, which lies west of the Euphrates and has been a flashpoint of competition for control of northern areas, and the city of Kobani, where Kurdish fighters waged some of the fiercest battles with Isis jihadis.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi
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