WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced the United States will lift economic sanctions on Turkey after the country agreed to a permanent cease-fire in Syria, nearly two weeks after it launched a deadly invasion into territory held by U.S. allied Kurdish forces.
The removal of the sanctions, announced by Trump in a televised White House address, was met with bipartisan condemnation from lawmakers who argued Turkey would not face any consequences for the bloodshed that erupted when it invaded Syrian territory south of its border over the objections of the United States.
Trump continued to defend his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria earlier this month, a move that left an opening for Turkey to attack and displace the Syrian Kurds who for years aided the United States in reducing the ranks of the Islamic State terrorist group. The ensuing turmoil has since allowed Russia to gain a stronger foothold in the region.
“The sanctions will be lifted unless something happens that we’re not happy with,” Trump said of the sanctions imposed on Oct. 14.
Last week, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, traveled to Turkey to negotiate a temporary cease-fire agreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which included lifting the sanctions. The agreement also allowed Turkey to claim territory once held by the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, a group that had helped the United States capture and detain scores of Islamic State militants.
Trump’s announcement of a permanent cease-fire came a day after the five-day cease-fire agreement came to an end, and a day after Erdogan announced an alliance with Russian President Vladmir Putin that called for Russian and Turkish forces to take joint control over the region once held by the Syrian Kurds. More than 20,000 Kurdish civilians have fled northern Syria since the invasion, according to media reports.
Trump lauded the cease-fire even as said it was "somewhat questionable" if it could remain permanent.
Trump, who last week ordered the withdrawal of nearly 1,000 troops from the region, said Wednesday "a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area" to protect Syrian oil fields.
Trump's assertions came as the Pentagon and White House officials remained tight-lipped about how many troops would remain in Syria, and where the United States would relocate the troops. Defense Secretary Mark Esper had previously announced troops would be moved to Iraq, but Iraqi officials on Tuesday said the United States did not have permission to increase its military presence in the country and set a four-week deadline for U.S. troops to leave.
Trump said he spoke with the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi, who Trump said “thanked” him for the United States' role in negotiating a cease-fire agreement. The conversation came even as Abdi told American reporters a day earlier that "our trust in the United States is at its lowest."
Abdi, in a series of tweets reposted on Trump’s Twitter account, said Trump “promised to maintain partnership” with the beleaguered Kurdish fighters.
Trump said Abdi assured him that detained Islamic State fighters would remain in captivity, even as the Kurdish forces guarding them face an uncertain future in the wake of the invasion. The president also insisted that Turkey would "abide by it's committment" to keep the IS detainees captive amid reports that hundreds of Islamic State sympathizers and fighters escaped shortly after Turkey launched its offensive.
“A few got out, a small number,” Trump said of the terrorists who escaped.
Trump’s White House address came as he continued to face bipartisan backlash over his decision to withdraw from the region — a move that military analysts have warned could lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump's staunchest supporters in Congress, said it was "imperative" the United States continue to partner with Kurdish forces "to prevent ISIS from coming back," adding that he distrusted the ability of Erdogan, Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad to protect American interests by ensuring the detention of Islamic State fighters.
"I do not trust or believe that Turkey, Russia, or Assad have the capability or the desire to protect America from radical Islamic threats like ISIS," Graham said in a statement.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) criticized the removal of sanctions, saying on Twitter: "It’s unthinkable that Turkey would not suffer consequences for malevolent behavior which was contrary to the interests of the United States and our friends."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said it was "delusional and dangerous" for Trump to believe that Turkey would secure the detained ISIS fighters.
“President Trump’s latest announcement that he will lift sanctions on Turkey after despots like Assad, Erdogan, and Putin already got everything they wanted is another nonsensical and counterproductive foreign policy decision," Schumer said in a statement. "President Trump’s announcement includes no plan to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS or an explanation of how he will contain the ISIS jailbreak precipitated by his rash decision to withdraw from Northern Syria."