Trump shifts tone on Turkey in effort to halt Syria invasion

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a span of 24 hours, President Donald Trump moved from threatening to obliterate Turkey's economy if it invades Syria to inviting its president to visit the White House.

But Trump did not back away Tuesday from a plan to withdraw American troops from Syria as he tried to persuade Turkey not to invade the country and attack the U.S.-allied Kurds — a needle-threading strategy that has angered Republican and Democratic lawmakers and confused U.S. allies.

"This is really dangerous," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Trump tweeted that while U.S. forces "may be" leaving Syria, the U.S. has not abandoned the Kurds, who stand to be destroyed if Turkey follows through with its planned invasion. The Kurds lead a group of Syria fighters who have been steadfast and effective American allies in combating the Islamic State in Syria. Turkey, however, sees the Kurds as terrorists and a border threat.

Joseph Votel, a retired Army general who headed Central Command's military operations in Syria until last spring, wrote on The Atlantic website Tuesday that mutual trust was a key ingredient in the U.S. partnership with the Kurds.

"The sudden policy change this week breaks that trust at the most crucial juncture and leaves our partners with very limited options," Votel wrote.

Jonathan Schanzer, a Syria scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said even a limited Turkish incursion into northern Syria could quickly escalate.

"The president is doubling down on this — seems to be reversing course," Schanzer said. "He's trying to convey to the American people that he's made the right decision. Of course, (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan is going to see this as a green light."

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Rafah leader R. Tayyip Erdogan speaks with activists. (Photo by Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Istanbul mayor). (Photo by SIDALI-DJENIDI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Former prime pinister and leader of the Islamic Welfare Party Necmettin Erbakan, left, addresses supporters accompanied by Mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, and former defense minister Sevket Kazan, right, during a fast-breaking dinner during the holy month of Ramadan in Istanbul Sunday, Jan. 18, 1998. The Constitutional Court decided on Friday to close Welfare Party for violating the constitution's secular principles. The court also placed a political ban on Erbakan, 71, who had headed the Islamic movement for nearly three decades. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)
Mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, waves at his supporters with Mayor of Ankara Melih Gokcek, left, and Virtue Party member Ismail Kahraman, right, in Istanbul, Wednesday, April 22, 1998. Istanbul's pro-Islamic mayor denied that he had been trying to ferment discord, a day after learning that he had been sentenced to prison for inciting religious hatred. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considered as the likely upcoming leader of the Islamic Virtue Party, but if convicted, cannot hold any official possisions. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)
German opposition Christian Democrats' chairwoman Angela Merkel, right, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan address a news conference after their official talks in Berlin on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2003. (AP Photo/Jan Bauer)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, speaks privately to Prof. Mehmet Aydin, Turkey's Minister of Religious Affairs, at a press conference at the United Nations in New York, Monday, Dec. 18, 2006. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shake hands before their talks in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008. Maliki is in Turkey for talks on fighting Kurdish rebels and boosting bilateral relations.(AP Photo/Umit Bektas, Pool)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures at Kosovo residents gathered to welcome his visit in the town of Prizren on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. Erdogan said Turkey was one of the first countries recognizing Kosovo after the country declared its independence on Feb. 17, 2008, "this is the first visit to Kosovo in prime ministerial level from Turkey," he added. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
FILE - In this Friday, May 16, 2008, file photo Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, left, with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, 2nd right, and his wife Emine Erdogan, second left, and Turkish soccer star Hakan Sukur, right, during a garden party at the British Embassy in Ankara. Turkey's state-run news agency reports Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 authorities have issued an arrest warrant for former soccer star and legislator Hakan Sukur over his alleged links to a U.S.-based Muslim cleric who is accused by Turkey of masterminding last month's failed coup. (AP Photo/Firat Yurdakul, Pool, File)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hands out presents following his speech at a local municipality event in Istanbul, Saturday, May 16, 2015. Erdogan has criticized Egypt for sentencing ousted President Mohammed Morsi to death, saying the country was returning to the "old Egypt" by rolling back democracy. On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced Morsi to death over his part in a mass prison break that took place during the 2011 uprising that toppled Egypt's long-time leader Hosni Mubarak. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis}
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, receives a copy of the Holy Quran, Islam's holy book, at an international students meeting in Istanbul, Saturday, May 16, 2015. Erdogan has criticized Egypt for sentencing ousted President Mohammed Morsi to death, saying the country was returning to the "old Egypt" by rolling back democracy. On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced Morsi to death over his part in a mass prison break that took place during the 2011 uprising that toppled Egypt's long-time leader Hosni Mubarak. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he addresses the members of his ruling Justice and Development Party in Istanbul, late Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Erdogan is trying to bring Turkey's relations with European nations back on track following a stormy 2017 that saw the Turkish leader quarrel with European leaders and accuse them of Nazi-like behavior.(Yasin Bulbul/Pool Photo via AP)
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The confusion began Sunday when the White House issued a late-night statement saying U.S. forces in northeastern Syria would step aside for what it called an imminent Turkish invasion. The statement made no mention of U.S. efforts to forestall the invasion, leading many to conclude that Trump was, in effect, turning a blind eye to a slaughter of Kurds.

On Monday, amid criticism from some of his staunchest Republican supporters, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump suggested he was washing his hands of the Syria conflict, saying in a tweet that "it is time now for others in the region ... to protect their own territory." But he also threatened to "totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey" if its military action in Syria went too far.

Administration officials argue that Trump is employing strategy in response to Erdogan's insistence during a phone call Sunday with Trump that he was moving ahead with a military incursion into Syria. Erdogan seemed to have rejected a joint U.S.-Turkish plan, already being carried out, to create a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border to address Turkey's security concerns. The execution of that plan included dismantling some Kurdish defensive positions on the Syrian side of the border.

Without initially saying his administration was still trying to talk Erdogan out of invading, Trump ordered the 50 to 100 U.S. troops inside that zone to pull back for safety's sake. He then emphasized his desire to withdraw from Syria entirely, although no such broader pullout has begun.

According to U.S. officials, Turkish troops on Tuesday were massed along the border in apparent preparation for an incursion across the border. But they said that so far there have been no signs of an actual assault beginning.

The officials, who were not authorized to discuss details of military intelligence, said there are between 5,000 and 10,000 Turkish troops along the border apparently ready to go. The officials said they expect the Turks to begin with airstrikes, followed by barrages from heavy artillery along the border and the movement of ground troops into Syria.

Kurdish forces have some air defenses, such as shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, but would be outgunned by the Turks.

Trump has boasted about U.S. success in defeating the so-called Islamic State, but his critics now accuse him of abandoning a U.S. ally, setting the Kurds up to be killed. They also worry that if the Kurds end up fighting Turkish forces, they won't be able to guard detention centers in Syria that house thousands of captured IS fighters.

Trump supporters say the president's threat of sanctions could make Erdogan second-guess his planned incursion or perhaps limit it so as not to be slapped with financial penalties that would hurt the Turkish economy. Trump on Monday said he was fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from "endless war" in the Middle East, and he warned Turkey that he would ruin its economy if any American personnel are harmed.

Striking a notably friendlier tone, Trump on Tuesday said Erdogan will visit the White House on Nov. 13. He defended Ankara as a big U.S. trading partner, saying it supplies steel for F-35 fighter jets. In fact, the Trump administration removed Turkey from the F-35 program last summer because the Turks refused to cancel the purchase of a Russian air defense system that is incompatible with NATO forces. As part of that process, the U.S. will stop using any Turkish supplies and parts by March 2020.

Trump said Turkey understands that "any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency."

Turkey's vice president said his country won't bow to threats in an apparent response to Trump's warning to Ankara about the scope of its planned military incursion into Syria.

Fuat Oktay said in a speech Tuesday that Turkey is intent on combatting Kurdish fighters across its border in Syria and on creating a zone that would allow Turkey to resettle Syrian refugees there.

"Where Turkey's security is concerned, we determine our own path, but we set our own limits," Oktay said.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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