ANKARA, Turkey: A senior U.S. delegation faces the herculean task of pressuring Turkey to accept a cease-fire in Northern Syria, hours after President Donald Trump declared the U.S. has no stake in defending Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America’s partners against Islamic State extremists.
Vice President Mike Pence, heading a U.S. delegation that includes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien, arrived in Turkey on Thursday, a day after Trump dismissed the very crisis he sent his aides on an emergency mission to douse.
Trump suggested Wednesday that a Kurdish group was a greater terror threat than the Islamic State group, and he welcomed the efforts of Russia and the Assad government to fill the void left after he ordered the removal of nearly all U.S. troops from Syria amid a Turkish assault on the Kurds.
“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” Trump said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”
He added: “Let them fight their own wars.”
The split-screen foreign policy moment proved difficult to reconcile and came during perhaps the darkest moment for the modern U.S.-Turkey relationship and a time of trial for Trump and his Republican Party allies. Severe condemnation of Trump’s failure to deter Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assault on the Kurds, and his subsequent embrace of Turkish talking points about the former U.S. allies, sparked bipartisan outrage in the U.S. and calls for swift punishment for the NATO ally.
Republicans and Democrats in 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 the withdrawal may lead to revival of the Islamic State group as well as Russian presence and influence in the area, besides the slaughter of many Kurds.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., publicly broke with Trump to call the U.S. relationship with the Kurds “a great alliance.”
“I’m sorry that we are where we are. I hope the vice president and the secretary of state can somehow repair the damage,” McConnell said Wednesday.
Even among top administration officials, there were concerns that the trip lacked achievable goals and had been undermined by Trump even before it began. While Erdogan faces global condemnation for the invasion, he also sees renewed nationalistic fervor at home, and any pathway to de-escalation likely would need to delicately avoid embarrassing Erdogan domestically. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking.
The White House disclosed that Trump had both cajoled and threatened Erdogan in an unusual letter last week, urging him to act only in “the right and humane way” in Syria. The letter was sent the day Erdogan launched the major offensive against the Kurds.
Trump started on a positive note by suggesting they “work out a good deal,” but then talked about crippling economic sanctions and concluded that the world “will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”