Under fire from critics who have accused him of betraying the Kurds who fought alongside U.S. forces against ISIS in northern Syria, President Trump defended his decision Monday to pull troops from the region.
“We’re working with the Kurds,” Trump told reporters ahead of a Cabinet meeting at the White House. “We have a good relationship with the Kurds, but we never agreed to, you know, protect the Kurds. We fought with them for three and a half, four years. We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives.”
Trump’s remarks came as video of angry Kurds in the town of Qamishli pelted U.S. armored vehicles with vegetables and rocks as they exited the region, and residents held up signs that read: “Thanks for US People but Trump Betrayed Us.”
Last week, Trump ordered that U.S. troops be withdrawn from some Kurdish areas of Syria, opening the door for Turkish troops to launch a military offensive against the Kurds. As bipartisan outrage grew in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Ankara and struck what they called a “ceasefire” deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that called for the relocation of the Kurdish population living in northern Syria.
Trump stressed Monday that he did not think that the United States was under any obligation to help protect the Kurds, who lost at least 10,000 fighters in the fight against ISIS. Eight U.S. service members were killed during the war.
The president did, however, see one reason to keep American troops in Syria.
“I don’t think it’s necessary, other than that we secure the oil,” Trump said.
Trump also downplayed the role the Kurds played in helping retake cities and towns claimed by ISIS forces.
“A lot of people are good when they fight with us. When you have $10 billion worth of airplanes shooting 10 miles in front of your line, it’s much easier to fight,” Trump said. “But with that, they were a good help, but we were a great help to them too. They were fighting ISIS, you know they hated ISIS, so they were fighting ISIS. But we never agreed, where is an agreement that says we have to stay in the Middle East for the rest of humanity, for the rest of civilization to protect the Kurds? It never said that. And we have protected them. We’ve taken very good care of them and I hope they’re going to watch over ISIS.”
Although Trump’s abrupt decision to pull U.S. troops from Kurdish positions and allow Turkish forces to launch an attack was blasted by Democrats and Republicans alike, the president once again asserted that by allowing fighting to erupt, his administration was able to broker a deal to stop it.
“I will say this: If shooting didn’t start for a couple of days, I don’t think the Kurds would have moved, I don’t think frankly you would have been able to make a very easy deal with Turkey,” Trump said. “I think when it started for a few days it was so nasty that when we went to Turkey and when we went to the Kurds they agreed to do things that they never would have done before the shooting started.”
Critics of the president have noted that Trump’s deal with Erdoğan comes at the expense of the Kurds, who had been occupying a swath of northeastern Syria and now find themselves homeless. The House of Representatives voted 354–60 last week to condemn the pullout. In a Washington Post editorial, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the withdrawal of U.S. troops “a grave strategic mistake” that “will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken our important alliances.”
In a speech last Thursday on the Senate floor, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, that “what we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history.”
Trump, on the other hand, sees quite a different situation. “Our relationship with the Kurds is good, and they’re going to be safe,” the president said Monday.
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