Steve Herman – Voice of America
U.S. President Donald Trump has declared that the Turkish invasion of northeast Syria is "not our problem."
In the Oval Office on Wednesday morning, with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at his side, Trump added it is fine for Russia to help and he declared that the Kurds defending their territory inside Syria against the Turkish military are "not angels."
Trump has been facing severe bipartisan criticism for having U.S. forces stand aside as the Turks moved into northeast Syria last week to attack the Kurds, who were allies of the United States in the campaign against Islamic State.
Imposing sanctions on Turkey is preferable to having U.S. military personnel in the region involved in the fighting, Trump told reporters, as a high level U.S. delegation heads to Turkey press for a halt to Ankara's invasion of northeast Syria.
Offiicials say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday in Ankara.
Erdogan had earlier told Sky News Pence and Pompeo would be meeting their Turkish counterparts this week. The Turkish leader added that when Trump comes to Turkey he would meet with him. His comments appeared to indicate he wouldn't talk to Pence and Pompeo but Turkey's communications director said Erdogan would in fact meet with both officials.
During his visit to Turkey, Pence will voice the U.S. commitment "to reach an immediate cease-fire and the conditions for a negotiated settlement," according to a White House statement. In addition to the call to halt the military operation, the United States raised steel tariffs and halted negotiations on a $100-billion trade deal with Turkey.
"Goal number one is to carry out diplomacy to try to find a cease-fire. Get the situation under control. It's very, very confusing. It's dangerous for our troops. It's placing the fight against ISIS [Islamic State] at risk. It's placing at risk the safe imprisonment of almost 10,000 detainees," a State Department official said earlier Tuesday.
The official noted there has not been "any major successful breakout so far of detainees," referring to imprisoned IS fighters and their families. Syrian Kurdish officials have said hundreds of suspected IS prisoners have escaped.
Officials in Washington say American military aircraft have conducted a "show of force" in Syria after Turkish-backed fighters came too close to American forces during the Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria against the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.
As Turkish-backed militias advanced towards the Lafarge Cement Factory, the SDF set fire to, and then vacated its facilities and equipment, a U.S. official said.
"No U.S. forces or equipment were ever in jeopardy and remain within separate, secure facilities. Our priority is protecting the remaining Coalition forces at the LCF as multiple forces converge in northeast Syria," said U.S. Army Col. Myles B. Caggins, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.
Before Thursday's talks in Ankara, the diplomatic effort will proceed Wednesday in New York and in Brussels with both the U.N. Security Council and NATO ambassadors set to discuss the situation in Syria.
Securing Nuclear Weapons
Democratic Senator Edward Markey is asking Trump to "immediately" remove U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Turkey.
Markey says about 50 weapons are at the Incirlik Air base, about 400 kilometers from the Syrian border.
"While Russia's nuclear threat continues, our nuclear weapons deployment must reflect today's evolving security environment," Markey said in a statement.
Erdogan cut power to Incirlik and prevented U.S. aircraft from flying in or out of the base during the failed 2016 uprising against the Turkish government.
Trump has faced harsh criticism in the week since the White House announced Turkey was going forward with its long-held plans to try to carve out a buffer zone along its border with Syria free from the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. The U.S. military has long said its Kurdish allies have been instrumental in the fight against IS, and the elimination of IS's caliphate.
Turkey's incursion pushed the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces to reach an agreement with the Syrian government that has brought Syrian troops back into the northeastern part of the country for the first time in years, including on Monday when they reached the town of Manbij.
U.S. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have faulted the Trump administration for what is unfolding, saying the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area cleared the way for the U.S. ally SDF to be put in danger, as well as increasing the potential for Islamic State militants under SDF detention to break free and stage a resurgence.
Congress' leading Democrats - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer - announced Tuesday a joint bipartisan resolution opposing Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria, calling it a "reckless action, which threatens countless lives."
Trump spoke Monday with both Erdogan and General Mazloum Kobani, the head of the mostly Kurdish SDF that the United States has relied on to battle the Islamic State militants in Syria.
Erdogan on Tuesday said he told Trump the previous day that Turkey would never declare a cease-fire in northern Syria.
National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin and State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this story.