Donald Trump has issued a strange, rambling defence of his controversial decision to green light Turkey’s invasion of Syria, insisting he had consulted with everyone before acting and that Britain was among those parties “thrilled by the decision."
Just hours after the White House announced, in what represented a major policy shift in the Middle East, that it was withdrawing US troops from part of northern Syria ahead of a planned Turkish military operation, the president claimed more people supported the decision than disagreed.
He said the UK was among those parties who agreed with the policy shift, which critics say opens the door to Turkey to attack Kurdish forces previously backed by the West.
“A lot of people have their opinion. I could name many who are extremely thrilled that we’re coming home,” he said at the White House.
“The UK is very thrilled at this decision. As you know, they have soldiers over there also. And others. But many people agree with it very strongly. I understand both sides of it very well.”
Asked whether Downing Street agreed with Mr Trump's characterisation of the UK response, prime minister Boris Johnson's official spokesman said: "We are deeply concerned by reports that Turkey intends to launch a military operation in north-east Syria. We do not support the proposed Turkish action and we are in close touch with international partners including the US, France and Germany. The UK has been consistently clear with Turkey that unilateral military action must be avoided because it would destabilise the region and threaten efforts to secure the lasting defeat of Daesh.
"We have also made that position clear to the US. The foreign secretary (Dominic Raab) underlined to (US secretary of state) Mike Pompeo yesterday that Turkish threats of military incursion are a cause for serious concern."
The decision to permit Turkey to roll into northern Syria and effectively abandon the the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara considers terrorists because of their support for a banned Kurdish separatist organisation inside Turkey, was widely criticised by Democrats and Republicans. It was also condemned in the region by those who feared it could trigger more bloodshed.
Senator Lindsey Graham, usually a staunch Trump ally, called the move “impulsive”, and suggested it would undo “all the gains we’ve made [and] throw the region into further chaos”.
He added: “I hope I’m making myself clear how shortsighted and irresponsible this decision is in my view.”
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said: “A precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime and increase the risk of reorganisation by Isis.”
Nikki Haley, Mr Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, also issued a condemnation of the decision, using social media.
“We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back,” she tweeted. “The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against Isis in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend.”
The decision to move US troops came late on Sunday evening and followed phone call between Mr Trump and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria. The United States armed forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and the United States forces, having defeated the Isis territorial ‘caliphate’, will no longer be in the immediate area,” the White House said.
Reports suggested that US allies operating in the region, including Britain, were caught by surprise. There was no immediate response to Mr Trump’s claim about Britain being “thrilled” from Downing Street, the foreign office, or the department of defence.
About 1,000 US troops were operating in northeastern Syria as of September, according to CNN. On Monday, reports said around 50 would be deployed elsewhere in Syria.
Britain is among several countries, including France, that have a tiny number of special forces personnel operating in Syria.
“The American forces did not fulfil their commitments and withdrew their forces from the border areas with Turkey, and Turkey is now preparing for an invasion operation of northern and eastern Syria,” the SDF said in a statement.
“Erdogan’s threats are aimed to change the security mechanism into a mechanism of death, displace our people and change the stable and secure region into a zone of conflict and permanent war. We are determined to defend our land at all costs.”
Speaking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House at an event where he signed a trade deal with Japan, Mr Trump said he had campaigned to bring US troops home.
“We’ve been there for many, many, many years beyond what we were supposed to be. Not fighting. Just there. Just there. And it’s time to come back home,” he said.
“I can understand the other side of it. But if you go by the other side, that means we should never, ever come home.”
Asked if had consulted the joints chief of staff of the US military, he said: “I consulted with everybody. I always consult with everybody.”
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