Trump downplays Turkey’s assault in Syria, touts sanctions over fighting

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US President Donald Trump on Wednesday played down the crisis in Syria touched off by Turkey’s military operation against US-allied Kurdish forces, saying the conflict was between Turkey and Syria and that it was “fine” for Russia to help Damascus.

Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House, said imposing US sanctions on Turkey would be better than fighting in the region.

Kurdish-allied forces, backed by American troops, had been a strategic US partner in the fight against ISIS in northeastern Syria before Turkey launched an offensive in the area following a phone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Trump last week.

Trump said the Kurdish rebel PKK, who have waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara, were “probably” a bigger terror threat than ISIS.

“The PKK, which is a part of the Kurds, as you know, is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS.”

Tens of thousands have died since the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. The PKK is considered a terror group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.

The Kurds are “not angels,” Trump said.

“They fought with us. We paid a lot of money for them to fight with us, and that’s okay. They did well when they fought with us. They didn’t do so well when they didn’t fight with us.”

Trump has faced harsh criticism for his handling of the situation, including from fellow Republicans. He is scheduled to host congressional leaders at the White House later on Wednesday as lawmakers ready sanctions against Ankara.

“I viewed the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be for the United States strategically brilliant. Our soldiers are out of there. Our soldiers are totally safe. They’ve got to work it out. Maybe they can do it without fighting,” he told reporters.

“We’re watching and we’re negotiating and we’re trying to get Turkey to do the right thing, because we’d like to stop wars regardless,” Trump said.

President Trump denied that he had given Turkish President Erdogan a “green light” to launch operations against the Kurdish militants in Syria.

“President Erdogan’s decision didn’t surprise me because he’s wanted to do that for a long time,” Trump told reporters. “He’s been building up troops on the border with Syria for a long time.”

“I didn’t give him a green light,” Trump said. “Just the opposite of a green light,” according to AFP.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump demanded Turkey stop its military operation in Syria and imposed new sanctions on the NATO ally as Trump scrambled to limit the damage from his much-criticized decision to clear US troops from Turkey’s path.

Vice President Mike Pence said Trump had told Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call to agree to an immediate ceasefire. He also said he would travel to the region soon to try to mediate the crisis.

Meanwhile and despite an earlier statement by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday that he would not meet visiting US Vice President Mike Pence, his office said the meeting would go ahead after all.

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