President Trump on Wednesday ordered an end to economic sanctions against Turkey that were imposed after that country’s invasion of Syria earlier this month, declaring success for his policy despite a widespread belief among lawmakers of his own party and foreign policy experts that the U.S. withdrawal from the region has been a victory for Turkey and Russia.
“Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” Trump said, although he also added a small number of troops would remain in Syria to secure oil fields, a goal he often voices when discussing the region.
“The sanctions will be lifted unless something happens that we’re not happy with,” he added. .
The announcement gave Trump another opportunity to declare his desire to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East -- a position that has put him sharply at odds with Republican leaders and has also dismayed U.S. allies, including Israel, who see Russian and Iranian influence growing as the U.S. pulls back.
Russian officials and media outlets have been touting the U.S. pullback as an indication of Moscow’s growing power in the region, while gloating that Americans have lost clout.
Despite Trump’s persistent description of the region as “sand” and deserts, the area of northern Syria that is in contention is actually a heavily populated part of the Euphrates River valley, which includes a number of cities, many of them with large numbers of Kurdish civilians, whose fate is at the center of the debate over Trump’s policy.
Trump abruptly decided early this month to pull a small group of American troops out of northern Syria. That cleared the way for Turkey to invade the area and attack Kurdish militia groups, which have been close U.S. allies for years.
The Kurds did the bulk of the fighting in recent years against the Islamic State militias, also known as ISIS, helping the U.S. achieve a major goal of driving Islamic State out of territories it controlled in Syria and Iraq with minimal U.S. casualties. The Turks, who have a sizable Kurdish population in their country, see the autonomous Kurdish groups in Syria and neighboring Iraq as a threat to their security.
The sanctions Trump lifted had been imposed by his administration just over a week ago to punish Turkey for the incursion and its attacks on the Kurds. The administration acted after bipartisan outrage over Trump’s failure to protect the Kurdish population.
After the sanctions were imposed, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Turkey, where he negotiated a cease-fire with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan under which Turkey agreed to a five-day pause in its invasion. The pause allowed Kurdish fighters to flee the region, although they left behind tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians. The pause, which expired Tuesday, also allowed Turkey to secure its gains in northern Syria and Russia to move into the vacuum left behind by the U.S. withdrawal.
The Kurdish withdrawal also allowed at least some people associated with Islamic State to escape from prisons where they were being guarded by Kurdish forces.
Trump ignored a question about the detainees as he left the White House Diplomatic Room, where he made his announcement. White House aides have tried to downplay the escapes, insisting that the “vast majority” of detainees remain in custody.
Under the cease-fire agreement, the administration said it would lift sanctions once the pause in fighting became permanent. Trump said that had now been achieved, though he quickly added that any claims of permanence in the Middle East were “questionable.”
Trump said the time had come for the U.S. to wash its hands of involvement in the region, despite past assurances to the Kurds that the U.S. would defend them in return for their service against Islamic State.
“Turkey, Syria and all forms of the Kurds have been fighting for centuries,” he said. “We have done them a great service. We’ve done a great job for all of them, and now we’re getting out.”
That sentiment is in keeping with Trump’s overall policy direction. No longer surrounded by more hawkish advisors who try to restrain him, as he was in the first two years of his tenure, Trump has been eager to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, Afghanistan and other parts of the Mideast. In June, he decided at the last minute against striking Iran to retaliate for what U.S. military officials said was that country’s shooting down of a U.S. drone airplane over the Persian Gulf.
Trump has also sent mixed signals, however, agreeing recently to add to U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia.
His moves to pull back on U.S. commitments have brought sharp criticism from fellow Republicans.
One of the loudest voices, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said on Wednesday that a cease-fire in northern Syria, if permanent, would represent “real progress,” but urged Trump to commit air power as part of an international force to patrol the region.
Turkey, Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad lack the capacity or desire “to protect America from radical Islamic threats like ISIS,” Graham said.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio offered more skepticism, tweeting that “Erdogan has NOT agreed to stop all military operations” in Syria and that Russia would “remove” more Kurdish forces from the region.
Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who has grown increasingly critical of Trump’s behavior on many fronts, called it “unthinkable that Turkey would not suffer consequences for malevolent behavior which was contrary to the interests of the United States and our friends.”
Trump made his announcement flanked by top officials including Pence and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo. His remarks were heavily focused on blaming others, including former President Obama, for instability in the region.
Although Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met Tuesday and agreed to Russian patrols in the border area, Trump seemed to reject the idea that other countries had played a major role in the outcome.
“This was an outcome created by us, the United States and nobody else, no other nation, very simple. We’re willing to take blame and we’re also willing to take credit,” Trump said as he thanked Erdogan and suggested the two might meet soon. Trump has denied giving Erdogan a green light for his Syria invasion, although the U.S. troop withdrawal effectively did so.
“Our troops are safe. And the pain and suffering of the three-day fight that occurred was directly responsible for our ability to make an agreement with Turkey and the Kurds that could never have been made without this short-term outburst,” Trump asserted.
“Should Turkey fail to honor its obligations, including the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, which I truly believe they will do, we reserve the right to reimpose crippling sanctions, including substantially increased tariffs on steel and all other products coming out of Turkey,” he said.
Staff writer Alexa Díaz contributed to this report.