White House

Kurds are ‘no angels’ and their fight with Turkey is ‘not our problem,’ Trump says

In rare split, McConnell had sharp words about president’s decision to abandon Kurds in Syria

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office on Wednesday while Italian President Sergio Mattarella listens. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump on Wednesday continued distancing the United States from Kurdish forces in Syria who once were Washington’s chief ally in fighting the Islamic State group.

Trump’s decision to remove American forces who were positioned between Turkish troops and the Kurds has angered both Republican and Democratic members. Both chambers are expected to soon approve a resolution condemning his decision, which he says is necessary to help bring an end to what he calls America’s post-9/11 “endless wars.”

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Unraveling U.S. military operations across the Middle East and Southwest Asia was a key plank of of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. Initially, he gave into the counsel of his hawkish military and national security advisers, but as his term moves toward its three-year anniversary, Trump has increasingly bucked such advisers.

The Syrian Kurds lost more than 10,000 people while helping the Obama and Trump administrations mostly overturn ISIS’ control of large swaths in northern Syria.

But Trump sent a signal he has doubts about the longtime U.S. allies, telling reporters in the Oval Office alongside his Italian counterpart the Kurds are “no angels,” and called his move “strategically brilliant.”

What’s more, he continued his break with House and Senate Republicans when he said  Turkey’s invasion of Syria to hit Kurdish forces is “not our problem.”

The chief executive took a shot at the Kurds, noting in his remarks that the U.S. funded many of the group’s operations against ISIS. “But that’s OK,” he added.

Trump said later at a news conference that Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s decision to invade Syria did not take him off guard, and he signaled he ordered American troops out suspecting the Turkish assault.

“It didn’t surprise me at all. They’ve been warring for years,” he said of the Turks and Kurds.

Though northern Syria was controlled by Kurdish forces, Trump called it “Assad’s land” and said he concluded the United States should not pay to “defend it.”

As Trump continued describing the Syria matter as up to those in that “neighborhood,” Italian President Sergio Mattarella used part of his prepared remarks at the news conference to express his “concern” over Turkey’s assault.

One day before Vice President Mike Pence is to meet with Erdogan, the U.S. president said, “I think they will have a successful meeting,” If diplomacy fails to end the fighting, he said additional sanctions would be put in place on Turkish goods.

The president said earlier this week has no qualms with Russia, which is filling the vacuum there as U.S. forces prepare for a risky aerial evacuation, putting military police forces where the Americans once acted as a buffer between the Turks and Kurds.

On Wednesday, Trump appeared to endorse a deal Kurdish leaders made with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he once targeted with Tomahawk missile strikes.

“Syria’s protecting the Kurds,” Trump said. “They’re safe.”

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He appeared to wash his hands of the murky situation as Assad's government, Moscow, Turkey and Kurdish leaders continue careening toward a bloody and uncertain future.

“I wish them all a lot of luck,” he said.

Lawmakers from both parties who rarely agree on much are in lockstep in feeling the president abandoned a longtime ally. As the Senate returned Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Trump’s move “completely unacceptable.”

“This violence needs to end,” said McConnell, though he never uttered Trump’s name during a floor speech.

He also took rare umbrage with Trump’s “America first” foreign policy.

“I want to make something clear: The United States has taken the fight to Syria and Afghanistan because that is where our enemies are. Fighting terrorists, exercising leadership in troubled regions, and advancing U.S. interests around the world does not make us an evil empire or the world’s policeman,” he said. “It makes us a prudent and responsible world power that stands up for our own security and the freedom of others.”

As Trump was speaking to reporters at the White House, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters he hopes to bring a Turkey sanctions bill the Foreign Affairs Committee is working on to the floor “in the near future.”

Trump announced this week he is slapping sanctions on Turkey because he has determined its operation has been too harsh. He also raised steel tariffs on Ankara to 50 percent, warning Wednesday he could impose “massive” ones if Turkey continues its hard-handed tactics. Treasury Secretary Steven warned last week the Trump administration could "shut down" Turkey's economy.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.