President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that U.S. troops serving in Syria are “totally safe” amid fighting among local military forces thanks to “strategically brilliant” moves to pull back American assets in recent days.
“They have a problem at the border. It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it,” Trump said about the situation in Syria during an Oval Office press event. “We only had 28 soldiers … and they are fully accounted for. We’re watching and negotiating and trying to get Turkey to do the right thing, because we would like to stop wars regardless.”
Trump’s comments came ahead of a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish President Erdogan later today designed to calm tensions in the region, heightened since Turkish forces began a military assault a week ago.
Ahead of that, Trump announced plans to pull back U.S. military personnel in the region to avoid getting caught up in a regional conflict.
The move has drawn widespread criticism from lawmakers, former military leaders and outside defense experts, who said it amounted to abandoning Kurdish allies in the region who had worked closely with American forces in the fight against the Islamic State group. The White House has announced sanctions against Turkey for the military aggression, and Congress is considering further restrictions this week.
While Trump said the U.S. withdrawal from the disputed border towns amounted to only “28 soldiers” assisting Kurdish military units, other U.S. military assets remain in the region.
“We have quite a contingent right nearby of soldiers and the finest equipment in the world. I don’t think we’ll have to use it,” he said.
“We’re not going to be fighting, we don’t want to be fighting. I don’t think there is any reason to anyway. … If Syria wants to fight for their land, that’s up to Turkey and Syria, as it has been for hundreds of years. For hundreds of years they have been fighting, as have been the Kurds. It’s a mess.
“They have a lot of sand over there. There is a lot of sand they can play with.”
Trump also downplayed concerns about the safety of Kurdish fighters without U.S. support.
“The Kurds know how to fight,” he said. “They’re not angels. They fought with us. We paid a lot of money for them to fight with us, and that’s OK. They did well when they fought with us.”
The commander in chief dismissed concerns that the region conflict could complicate work at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, saying that the personnel and equipment there are safe. He also criticized the cost of stationing American troops near conflict zones around the world, saying that the United States needs to step away from such open-ended missions.
“If Turkey goes into Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria. That’s not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like you to believe,” he said.
“The plan is to get out of endless wars, to bring our troops home, to not be policing agents around the world. We’re in 90 counties in one form or another. We’re all over the world policing. And frankly, many of those countries don’t respect what we’re doing, they don’t like what we’re doing. And they don’t like us.”
Trump also downplayed concerns that the move could allow Islamic State group fighters to escape from prisons guarded by Kurdish forces and regroup in disputed regions.
“Every player there hates ISIS. Syria more than us. Russia more than us. They can handle it, they should handle it,” he said. “We should fight our own battles on our own territories.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.