U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday he will lift sanctions on Turkey after the NATO ally agreed to permanently stop fighting Kurdish forces in Syria and he defended his decision to withdraw American troops, saying the U.S. should not be the world’s policeman.
“We’re getting out,” Trump said at the White House, asserting that tens of thousands of Kurdish lives were saved as the result of his actions.
“Let someone else fight over this long, blood-stained sand,” he said.
Trump warned that if Turkey does not honour its pledge for a permanent cease-fire, he will not hesitate to reimpose sanctions. Earlier this month, Trump halted negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey, raised steel tariffs back up to 50% and imposed sanctions on three senior Turkish officials and Turkey’s defence and energy ministries.
“The job of our military is not to police the world,” Trump said. “Other nations must step up and do their fair share. Today’s breakthrough is a critical step in that direction.”
Trump earlier in October ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkey’s president, Recep Tayipp Erdogan, told Trump in a phone call that Turkish forces were set to invade northeastern Syria. Turkey’s goal was to push back the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters. Turkey views the Kurds as terrorists and an ever-present threat along its southern border with Syria.
The U.S. pullout was seen as an abandonment of Kurdish fighters, who have incurred thousands of casualties as they fought with U.S. forces against the Islamic State militants.
The U.S. troops left, but the conflict was not without repercussions.
Trump’s critics say he gave up American influence in the region and signalled to future allies that the United States is no longer a reliable partner. More than 176,000 people have been displaced by the Turkish offensive and about 500 IS fighters gained freedom during the conflict.
“There were a few that got out, a small number relatively speaking,” Trump said. “They’ve been largely recaptured.”
On Tuesday, Trump’s special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, said “dozens” of Islamic State fighters had been freed since Turkey began its incursion in northeastern Syria.
“I would say dozens at this point,” Jeffrey told a congressional hearing when Democratic Senator Chris Coons asked if he knew how many “hardened” Islamic State (ISIS) fighters had been released. There have been reports of much larger numbers.
Turkey is taking control of areas of Syria that it captured in its invasion. Russian and Syrian forces are now overseeing the rest of the border region, leaving the United States with little influence in the region.
Trump said he would “bring our soldiers home” from Syria, but then recalibrated and his administration plans to shift more than 700 to western Iraq. Those troops, however, do not have permission to stay in Iraq permanently. Iraq’s defence minister, Najah al-Shammari, told The Associated Press that the U.S. troops will leave the country within four weeks.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper visited the Iraqi capital on Wednesday, a day after Russia and Turkey reached an agreement that would send their forces along nearly the entire northeastern border to fill the void left when U.S. forces left. Between 200 and 300 U.S. troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.
Under the new agreement, much of that territory would be handed over to U.S. rivals.
The biggest winners are Turkey and Russia. Turkey would get sole control over areas of the Syrian border captured in its invasion. Turkish, Russian and Syrian government forces would oversee the rest of the border region. America’s former U.S. allies, the Kurdish fighters, are hoping Russia and Syria will preserve some pieces of the Syrian Kurdish autonomy in the region.
Hours before the announcement, Trump posted on Twitter, calling the deal a “big success.”
“Ceasefire has held and combat missions have ended,” he wrote. “Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us. Captured ISIS prisoners secured.”
-With files from Global News and Reuters