Trump says he is ‘island of one’ on Syria position as domestic and international criticism mounts

As the situation in northern Syria becomes more chaotic, US defence secretary admits he does not know whether Turkey would attack US troops

Andy Gregory,Phil Thomas
Sunday 13 October 2019 17:06
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Donald Trump claims ‘UK is thrilled’ about decision to let Turkey invade Syria

Donald Trump has described himself as “an island of one” over his sudden decision to remove US forces from northeastern Syria, as his defence secretary said 1,000 troops would be evacuated to avoid getting caught up in the Turkish invasion.

The president continued to defend the move that effectively green-lit the immediate Turkish assault on America’s Kurdish allies, who fought on the front line against Isis.

Amid bipartisan and international criticism that he has endangered stability in the Middle East, Mr Trump argued the US cannot fight “endless wars”.

Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, said most of the 1,000 US troops still in Syria were being moved as the Turkish military extended the scope of its incursion.

He told CBS’s Face the Nation: “In the last 24 hours we learned that they likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned, and to the west.”

The danger of US forces becoming embroiled in the conflict was illustrated on Friday when an American observation post came under shelling from Turkish artillery. No US troops were injured.

Asked whether he thought Turkey, a NATO ally, would deliberately attack American troops in Syria, Mr Esper said, “I don’t know whether they would or wouldn’t.”

A US military official told the Associated Press that the situation across northeastern Syria was “deteriorating rapidly” and that American troops had now become cut off from the Kurdish allies they had been fighting alongside.

Amid reports of 130,000 civilians forced to flee their homes, dozens killed and nearly 800 detainees having escaped from a camp holding Isis relatives, Mr Trump attempted to defend his "very smart" move on Sunday.

"Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change. Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight," he tweeted.

“We have to bring our great heroes, our great soldiers, we have to bring them home. It’s time. It’s time,” Mr Trump said in a lengthy, wide-ranging address to conservative activists at the Values Voter Summit on Saturday.

He portrayed the Middle East as a hopeless cause, despite years of American military involvement and financial investment.

“It’s less safe now. It’s less secure, less stable and they fight,” he said. “That’s what they do. They fight.”

The UN estimated on Sunday that at least 130,000 people had been displaced by the five-day-old Turkish invasion, with the official Kurdish death toll at 76.

Boris Johnson has, in a phone call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urged Turkey to halt the offensive.

And two of Turkey’s NATO allies, Germany and France, have said they are halting weapons exports to Turkey, while the Arab League denounced the operation.

Donald Trump defends decision to pull US forces out of Syria

Mr Trump announced that he had directed $50m in emergency aid for Syria to support Christians and other religious minorities.

Turkey regards the Kurds as terrorists, and Mr Trump suggested that he was aware of a likely invasion in the event of US withdrawal.

He defended his decision to reporters, saying Turkey had “been wanting to do this for many years ... they’ve been fighting each other for centuries”.

His former defence secretary Jim Mattis has also issued a strong warning that Mr Trump's move could lead to the resurgence of Isis.

"We may want a war over, we may even declare it over," General Mattis said, in an interview with NBC, aired on Sunday.

"You can pull your troops out as President Obama learned the hard way out of Iraq, but the 'enemy gets the vote', we say in the military.

"And in this case, if we don't keep the pressure on, then Isis will resurge. It's absolutely a given that they will come back."

Isis declared on Saturday that it has already started regrouping and is planning a fresh campaign in Syria, claiming responsibility for two deadly car bombs on Friday.

Mr Trump has previously talked tough on Isis, using their existence to justify enacting a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries.

But when asked about the prospect of escaped Isis prisoners shortly after his decision, Mr Trump played down the threat, telling reporters: “Well they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go. They want to go back to their homes.”

On Sunday, an estimated 785 women and children affiliated with Isis escaped from a camp 50km north of Raqqa.

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Kurdish authorities said “mercenaries” had attacked the Ain Issa camp where “Daesh elements” then attacked a severely diminished force of camp guards and opened the gates, amid Turkish shelling in the region.

As reports emerged of the escape, Turkish and Syrian rebel forces captured the neighbouring town of Suluk.

Mr Trump tweeted on Saturday night: “The same people that got us into the Middle East quicksand, $8tn and many thousands of lives (and millions of lives when you count the other side), are now fighting to keep us there.

“Don’t listen to people that haven’t got a clue. They have proven to be inept.”

Additional reporting by AP

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