Facing sustained bipartisan criticism over his decision to pull U.S. troops from their forward posts in northern Syria, President Trump on Monday defended the move, which has opened the way for a Turkish assault on America’s Kurdish allies.
Trump announced that an executive order coming “soon” would impose financial sanctions and entry restrictions on “current and former officials of the government of Turkey” involved in human rights abuses or “threatening the peace, security or stability in Syria.”
He also said he would increase tariffs on Turkish exports of steel to the U.S. and suspend negotiations on a trade treaty.
“I have been perfectly clear with President Erdogan,” read a White House statement attributed to Trump. “Turkey’s action is precipitating a humanitarian crisis and setting conditions for possible war crimes.”
The humanitarian crisis, involving atrocities by militias allied with Turkey and the displacement of tens or hundreds of thousands of Kurds who had been living in the region under U.S. protection, was predicted by many as soon as Trump announced a week ago that he would pull out a token force of American troops that had been stationed near the border, serving as a tripwire against an assault by Turkey.
Erdogan, whose government regards some Kurdish militias as terrorists intent on seizing part of Turkey for an independent Kurdish state, had been threatening to attack the Kurds for years. Trump’s decision to redeploy the American forces away from the area came after a phone call between the two leaders.
There has been ongoing uncertainty about where the American troops would go. The White House statement seemed to indicate most would be withdrawn from Syria to other bases in the region to “monitor the situation” with ISIS. A “small footprint” would remain in southern Syria.
In a series of five tweets, Trump explained his rationale for abandoning Kurdish troops who had fought alongside the United States against ISIS.
The tweets came after Trump ordered all remaining U.S. troops out of northern Syria. Defense Secretary Mark Esper admitted Sunday that the situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly and “gets worse by the hour.”
They also came after Syrian President Bashar Assad struck a deal with the abandoned Kurdish fighters in the conflict, with Syrian troops moving into the region for the first time in years.
In one, the president even cited the French statesman and military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, who has been dead for nearly 200 years.
Trump’s claim that the ISIS caliphate had been completely defeated is accurate in the narrow sense that the territory they formerly ruled is now nominally under the control of the Syrian and Iraqi central governments. But although the terror group lost its “final stronghold” in eastern Syria in March, the U.S. military issued a report in June stating ISIS “has been able to regroup and sustain operations in Iraq and Syria in part because the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remain unable to sustain long-term operations, conduct multiple operations simultaneously, or hold territory that they have cleared of ISIS militants.”
Critics say Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria will not only lead to the reformation of ISIS — it also creates a vacuum in the war-torn region that could be filled by Russia or Iran.
Trump has been prone to using historical references in relation to the current crisis. Last week, defending the move, he complained that the Kurds — who didn’t have a state or an official army at the time — weren’t allied with the U.S. during World War II and “didn’t help us with Normandy.”