As President Trump claims victory in the Turkish-Russian takeover of northern Syria, members of his government are traveling the globe in an attempt to control the damage and reassure spooked allies about U.S. intentions.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday attended an uncomfortable session of NATO in Brussels where members harshly criticized Turkey’s incursion into Syria and apparent U.S. acquiescence. Turkey’s bloody military operation that killed scores of Kurdish fighters formerly allied with the U.S. came after Trump essentially greenlighted the move by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Turkey put us all in a very terrible situation, and I think the incursion’s unwarranted,” Esper said ahead of the meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The 29-member post-World War II transatlantic body includes most of Western Europe and Turkey, along with the United States.
His comments contrasted with those of Trump, who a day earlier claimed the results of Turkey’s invasion — in which Turkish forces hooked up with Russia to take control of an enormous swath of Syrian territory once home to the Kurds and patrolled by the U.S. — were a victory for his administration.
Critics say it’s difficult to see exactly how the routing of the Kurds and the withdrawal of American forces constituted a victory, though the developments are in keeping with Trump’s campaign promise to end U.S. involvement in foreign wars.
The actions have been greeted with vigorous bipartisan condemnation, primarily because the Syrian Kurds, who were instrumental in defeating Islamic State militants in the region, were abandoned.
The State Department has sought to minimize the damage to U.S. credibility in the region. The assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, David Schenker, met with leaders of the semiautonomous Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq in recent days in the city of Irbil. Convincing them — and other allies and partners in the region — that Washington would not abandon them was a major objective.
“I ... discussed the Turkish incursion into [northeastern] Syria ... and underscored our long-standing commitment to Iraq’s Kurds,” Schenker told reporters in Washington after the trip.
He met with highly skeptical Iraqi Kurds, who, despite their differences with Syrian Kurds, watched with alarm at what they saw as the U.S. betrayal of allies.
“What we’ve heard so far from U.S. officials is that what happened in Syria won’t happen in Iraq,” said Jabar Yawar, a Kurdish government official in Irbil. “But the emphasis is ‘for now.’ They’ve given us reassurances, for the present, that they have no intent to leave and withdraw. There is no promise beyond that.”
Yawar suggested the fight against a resurging Islamic State will be most compromised.
“The issue of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria affects the security of the whole area, even if the U.S. troops aren’t necessarily fighting forces, but support the fighting forces against [Islamic State] in terms of giving consultation, training or air cover,” he said.
A senior Trump administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal negotiations, said he told the Kurds that their section of Iraq “is a place that matters greatly to the U.S.” He added that the U.S. continues with plans to build one of the largest U.S. consulates in the Middle East in Irbil.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Thursday bristled at suggestions that the United States’ actions in Syria were eroding its credibility. He said the question, posed by a reporter in his home state of Kansas, was “insane.”
“The word of the United States is much more respected today than it was just 2 1/2 years ago,” he told the Wichita Eagle, alluding to President Obama’s decision not to retaliate against Syrian chemical attacks.
Trump on Wednesday proclaimed the military upheaval in northeastern Syria a “great outcome” despite reports of war crimes committed by Turkish forces against Kurds, the panicked flight of tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians and the expansion of Russian presence in the region. “Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” Trump said as he also lifted economic sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Turkey because of its military attacks in Syria.
Oddly, on Thursday, Trump said on Twitter that the Kurds should “start heading to the Oil Region!” Dormant oil fields in northeastern Syria are a desert, non-Kurdish zone where Kurds would be out of place.
His decision to invite Erdogan into Syria and permit Turkey’s alignment with Russia has essentially redrawn the map of the last contested section of a country riven by civil war and efforts — ultimately unsuccessful — to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad for the last eight years.
Thousands of militants from Islamic State were in prisons in northeastern Syria, and many escaped when U.S. troops began withdrawing. Trump said Wednesday that they had been “secured.” However, the administration’s special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, testified to Congress that more than 100 were unaccounted for.
“We do not know where they are,” he said.
Britain and France, which quietly deployed their special forces to work alongside U.S. troops in Syria, are especially worried about the escaped Islamic State fighters. The British and French must also withdraw with the Americans and were given no notice before Trump’s abrupt decision, made at Erdogan’s urging.
Erdogan, whom Trump praised as a good man who is doing the right thing for his country despite having a dismal human rights record, is expected to be welcomed at the White House next month. Erdogan has imprisoned thousands of opponents, dissidents and journalists in the last few years, often without trial or any judicial process.
There were conflicting reports Thursday over whether a cease-fire was holding. It was brokered by Trump’s envoys and expanded by Erdogan — who sees most Kurds as terrorists — and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces accused Turkey of renewing a land offensive, claims that Russia denied.
Under the Erdogan-Putin plan, Syrian Kurdish forces are to withdraw more than 19 miles from the Turkish border, abandoning a relatively peaceful enclave that they had built over the last several years and that they had hoped would one day be an independent state for the long stateless people.
Wilkinson reported from Washington and Bulos from Amman, Jordan.