Trump tries to ward off Turk­ish in­va­sion

Er­do­gan in­vited to US in ef­fort to halt ac­tion against Kurds

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Robert Burns, Matthew Lee and Deb Riech­mann

WASH­ING­TON — 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.”

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.

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 into Syria. 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 5,000 to 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 shoul­der­launched sur­face-to-air mis­siles, but would be out­gunned by the Turks.

Trump has boasted about U.S. suc­cess in de­feat­ing the 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.

AP

Turk­ish President Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan is poised to send Turk­ish troops into Syria.

WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY 2017

Ret. Army Gen. Joseph Vo­tel said trust with the Kurds is bro­ken.

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