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Trump: Turkish assault on Kurds in Syria 'has nothing to do with us'

President Donald J. Trump listens to remarks in

President Donald J. Trump listens to remarks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. Credit: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/POOL/EPA-EFE/Sh/MICHAEL REYNOLDS/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday sought to minimize the peacekeeping role the United States played in northern Syria, saying the deadly fighting that has erupted in the region "has nothing to do with us," all as the U.S. House passed a rare bipartisan rebuke of his order to withdraw American forces from the Islamic State stronghold.

Trump continued to defend his order last week to pull out of northern Syria in a day of fast-moving developments that included:

  • Top congressional Democrats walking out of a White House meeting with Trump on Syria after they said he had a "meltdown" and hurled insults at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
  • Trump announcing Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were headed to Turkey on Wednesday night in an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire agreement.
  • The White House releasing a letter Trump dispatched to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which he urged Erdogan: "Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!" 
  • The U.S. House voting 354-60 in support of a resolution condemning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria.

Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House during a meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, argued the deadly conflict between Turkey and U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria “has nothing to do with us,” a week after his abrupt withdrawal of American forces left an opening for Turkey to deliver on its long-standing threat of a military invasion.

Trump downplayed the significance of the yearslong alliance between the United States and the Kurdish fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. He described the fighters who aided American forces in fighting the Islamic State terrorist group as "not angels."

“They fought with us, and we paid a lot of money for them to fight with us, and that's OK," Trump said of the forces who fought to contain the spread of the Islamic State in the region.

U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday continued to describe Trump’s order as a betrayal of the fighters who captured and detained scores of Islamic State militants and have since been under siege from Turkish forces.

The tensions surrounding Trump's decision boiled over at a meeting between Trump and top congressional leaders at the White House, where Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Trump berated Pelosi and the Democrats on hand.

Schumer and Pelosi, speaking to reporters after the closed-door session, said Trump called Pelosi a "third-rate politician."

"This was not a dialogue, it was a sort of diatribe. A nasty diatribe, not focused on the facts," Schumer said.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham pushed back on the Democrats' account, saying in a statement that Democrats "chose to storm out [and] whine to cameras."

The president ordered the withdrawal of nearly 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria after a phone conversation with Turkish President Erdogan on Oct. 6, in which Erdogan announced his intent to invade the region. Erdogan has argued that the Syrian Kurds present a threat to Turkey because they are an offshoot of a decade-old militant and political organization — the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — that has committed terrorist acts in Turkey in pursuit of an independent Kurdish state within Turkey.

“Our soldiers are not in harm’s way — as they shouldn’t be, as two countries fight over land that has nothing to do with us,” Trump told reporters.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have since formed an alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is backed by Russian President Vladmir Putin. Lawmakers and military analysts have raised concerns that the United States is ceding influence to Russia in an unstable region, but Trump dismissed those concerns, saying it was “fine” for Russia to play a role in the escalating fight.

“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” Trump said. “It’s a lot of sand. They’ve got a lot of sand over there, so there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

The president’s remarks were immediately denounced by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The House approved a nonbinding resolution opposing his withdrawal of support to the Syrian Kurds. The entire Long Island delegation, including Trump supporters Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), voted in favor of the resolution.

"What kind of message does this send to the world? How can America be trusted to keep its word when we betray one of our close partners?" House Foreign Affairs chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said on the House floor. "Congress must speak out against this disgrace."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill, called Trump’s remarks “astonishing.”

"I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making and I hope President Trump will adjust his thinking," Graham said on Twitter.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he was troubled and puzzled by Trump's actions. 

“It’s very hard to understand why it is the vice president and secretary of state and others are going to talk with Erdogan and Turkey,” Romney said. “It’s like the farmer who lost all his horses and goes to now shut the barn door.”

Asked about the criticism, Trump during a joint news conference with Mattarella said his “political instinct” tells him “that’s what the country wants” ahead of the 2020 election.

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