AP National Security Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Washing his hands of America’s presence in Syria, President Donald Trump declared Wednesday the U.S. has no stake in supporting the Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as U.S. partners against Islamic State extremists.
Condemnation of his stance was quick and severe, not only from Democrats but from Republicans who have been staunch Trump supporters on virtually all issues.
The House, bitterly divided over the Trump impeachment inquiry, banded together for an overwhelming 354-60 denunciation of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Many lawmakers expressed worry that it may lead to revival of IS as well as Russian presence and influence in the area — in addition to slaughter of many Kurds.
At the White House, Trump said the U.S. has no business in the region — and not to worry about the Kurdish fighters.
“They know how to fight,” he said. “And by the way, they’re no angels.”
Trump said he is fulfilling a campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from “endless wars” in the Middle East — casting aside criticism that a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Syria not only betrays the Kurdish fighters but stains U.S. credibility around the world and opens an important region to Russia, which is moving in.
“We have a situation where Turkey is taking land from Syria. Syria’s not happy about it. Let them work it out,” Trump said. “They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it.”
Trump said he was sending Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara to urge the Turks to halt their weeklong offensive into northeastern Syria. But his remarks, first to reporters in the Oval Office and later at a news conference with his Italian counterpart, suggested he sees little at stake for America.
“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”
“Let them fight their own wars.”
More than once, Trump suggested the United States has little at stake in the Middle East because it is geographically distant — a notion shared by some prior to Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida militants used Afghanistan as a base from which to attack the U.S. That attack set off a series of armed conflicts, including in Iraq, that Trump considers a waste of American lives and treasure.
The current withdrawal is the worst decision of Trump’s presidency, said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who meets often with the president and is one of his strongest and most important supporters in Congress.
“To those who think the Mideast doesn’t matter to America, remember 9/11 — we had that same attitude on 9/10 2001.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he strongly disagreed with Trump and had told the president so. But he asked, “What tools do we have” to back up that disagreement?
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters he didn’t know what could be done to undo the harm he felt was resulting.
“There are some mistakes that are not easy to reverse. And there are some that are irreversible,” said Rubio, who was a Trump rival for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from the area. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he wants to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) -deep “safe zone” in Syria.
Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union, designate as a terrorist organization.
Trump mischaracterized the progress made thus far by the U.S. military in carrying out his instructions to withdraw all 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria. He referred to the approximately two dozen soldiers who evacuated from Turkey’s initial attack zone last week, but cast that as meaning the U.S. has “largely” completed its pullout.
A U.S. official familiar with planning for the withdrawal of the 1,000 said that they are consolidating onto two main bases but have not yet begun flying out of Syria in significant numbers. Military equipment is being gathered and flown out, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the withdrawal, which poses big security risks.
Trump downplayed the crisis that followed his decision to pull out of Syria, which critics say amounted to giving Turkey a green light to invade against the Kurdish fighters.
“It’s not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like you to believe,” Trump said, adding that he’s more than willing to let adversaries fight it out in that area of the Middle East.
In the meantime, he said, “Our soldiers are not in harm’s way, as they shouldn’t be.”
Trump did impose new sanctions on Turkey this week in an attempt to force Erdogan to end his assault. But he said Wednesday, “It’s time for us to come home.”
Even as Trump defended his removal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, he praised his decision to send more troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend against Iran.
Trump said the U.S. is sending missiles and “great power” to the Saudis, and “they’re paying for that.”
AP writers Alan Fram, Darlene Superville and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed.