U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that he had agreed to let Turkey launch its offensive in northeast Syria to get U.S. troops out of “endless wars,” but said he would devastate Turkey’s economy if the operation were “inhumane.”
Turkey began its long-awaited operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) by pounding positions in the northern Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn with artillery and air strikes on Wednesday afternoon before advancing with ground forces.
The SDF has played a key role in the U.S.-backed coalition against Islamic State, and U.S. lawmakers have strongly protested the president’s decision to pull U.S. troops back in advance of a Turkish onslaught since he announced it after a conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday.
But Trump said Turks and Kurds had been fighting for “hundreds of years” and that it was time for the United States to stop policing the Middle East.
The Kurds “didn’t help us with the Second World War. They didn’t help us with Normandy,” Trump said. “In addition to that, we have spent tremendous amounts of money on helping the Kurds – in terms of ammunition, in terms of weapons, in terms of money, in terms of pay. With all of that being said, we like the Kurds.”
Turkey views the SDF and its partners as terrorists due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed group that has been fighting the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy since 1984.
The group is also designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States, but Trump said Washington had worked with the PKK.
“It’s a rough group, but they worked with us. But we’ve spent a tremendous – and they’re fighting for their lands,” said the president. “So when you say, ‘they’re fighting with us’ – yes, but they’re fighting for their land.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, usually a firm ally of Trump’s, has slammed the president’s decision to “shamelessly abandon” the United States’ Kurdish partners and drafted a sanctions bill with Senator Chris Van Hollen on Wednesday that would target assets of Erdoğan and key ministers.
The bill also targets the Turkish military and energy sector, demands the swift imposition of sanctions for Turkey’s purchase of Russian missile defence systems and prohibits U.S. military sales to Turkey.
“I do agree on sanctions, but I actually think much tougher than sanctions if he doesn’t do it in as humane a way as possible,” Trump said, referring to Erdoğan’s military operation.
The meaning of “humane” in the context of Turkey’s military operation would have to be defined “as we go along,” Trump told reporters. “But if he (Erdoğan) does it unfairly, he will have to pay a very big economic price.”