After Turkey announced a long-expected offensive in northeastern Syria on Wednesday — a move that appeared to be targeting the Kurds, also as expected — Trump released a statement calling the move “a bad idea.” But the statement made no mention of Turkey targeting the Kurds — indeed, no mention of the Kurds at all. Instead, Trump doubled down on his decision to leave the area and offered reasons he says this remains necessary.
It was a remarkably tepid statement from the man who once promised to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea and this week threatened to “destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy if Turkey got out of line.
Here’s the full statement:
This morning, Turkey, a NATO member, invaded Syria. The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea. There are no American soldiers in the area. From the first day I entered the political arena, I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars—especially those that don’t benefit the United States. Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment. In addition, Turkey is now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison and that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form. We expect Turkey to abide by all of its commitments, and we continue to monitor the situation closely.
A few things: The mention that Turkey is a NATO member and that there are no U.S. soldiers in the area sounds as if Trump is playing down the severity of this offense. It recalls when Trump repeatedly reminded everyone that slain Washington Post Global Opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t an American citizen and talked about the importance of Saudi Arabia as a business partner. That presaged Trump basically doing nothing about Khashoggi’s gruesome murder last year.
Second, the lack of a mention of the Kurds is extremely conspicuous. Ever since announcing the withdrawal decision Sunday night, Trump has talked somewhat tough about Turkey, but he has never really made attacking the Kurds a red line that Turkey was not to cross.
When Trump threatened the Turkish economy Monday, it wasn’t about the Kurds; instead Trump referred more broadly to Turkey doing “anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.”
Trump has also spoken about the Kurds as if they are somewhat disposable allies and as if their conflict with Turkey is none of the United States’ business. He even suggested that anything that happens is former president Barack Obama’s fault.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on Turkey. They have been fighting with the PKK for many years. They’re natural enemies,” Trump told reporters Monday, referring to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. “If you read today — a couple of reports saying that when President Obama started this whole thing. As you know, it was started by President Obama; he created a natural war with Turkey and their longtime enemy, PKK. And they’re still there.”
In later tweets, Trump suggested the United States owed the Kurds nothing because the alliance had been mutually beneficial.
“The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades,” Trump tweeted. “I held off this fight for … almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”
Trump also retweeted another Twitter user who argued that the U.S. alliance was not with the Kurds more broadly but with the Kurdish-led PKK, which the tweeter said invited conflict with our NATO allies in Turkey.
By Tuesday, Trump insisted he had not “Abandoned the Kurds” but in the same tweet emphasized the importance of the U.S. alliance with Turkey. He pointed to financial and weapons assistance for the Kurds but again declined to set a red line at Turkey’s attacking them.
“Any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency,” Trump said, repeating his broad and unspecific threat from Monday.
Update: Trump offered more of the same fare later Wednesday. He was asked whether abandoning the Kurds might damage U.S. efforts to forge future alliances, and he responded, “No, it won’t. Alliances are very easy.” He added that the Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second War War, they didn’t help us with Normandy.”
At this point, Trump’s comments indicate how he feels about protecting the Kurds, and they confirm the worst fears of Republicans who fear Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pulled one over on the United States.
Trump may yet be persuaded to take a harder line against Turkey going after the Kurds, but his lack of interest in preventing it on the front end is likely to have major consequences. For a president whose unwieldy tenure has been controversial but who has rarely, if ever, faced a blood-on-his-hands allegation, he may not be able to avoid that much longer.
“The U.S. is abandoning our ally the Kurds, who fought ISIS on the ground and helped protect the U.S. homeland,” the No. 3-ranking House Republican, Liz Cheney (Wyo.), said Wednesday, using another name for the Islamic State.
It’s difficult to disagree.