President Trump on Wednesday once again defended his decision to remove U.S. military forces from northern Syria, saying before a meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the White House that Turkey’s invasion of Syria is “not our problem.”
Trump’s comments come amid widespread, bipartisan criticism of his decision to withdraw from the region and ahead of a planned trip by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to press Turkey for a cease-fire in its attack on Syrian Kurdish fighters.
“If Turkey goes into Syria, it is between Turkey and Syria. It’s not our problem,” Trump said, adding: “The Kurds know how to fight. As I said, they are not angels.”
Trump added: “We are not a policing agent...It is time for us to go home.”
Trump’s decision to move U.S. forces out of Syria effectively abandoned the Kurdish fighters, long allied with the U.S., and cleared the way for Turkey's invasion. After heavy criticism at home, Trump sought new leverage with Turkey by imposing economic sanctions.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has so far defied U.S. threat of sanctions, saying the only way its military offensive would end was if Syrian Kurdish fighters leave a designated border area.
As he met Wednesday with Italy's president, Trump said: "If Syria wants to fight to take back their land, that's up to them and Turkey."
Trump added: "There's a lot of sand that they can play with."
But as Trump defends removing troops from northeastern Syria, he's also talking up his recent decision to send more troops to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend itself against Iran.
Trump says the U.S. is sending missiles and "great power" to the Saudis, and added: "They're paying for that."
Russia has moved quickly to entrench its leadership role and fill the void after Trump ordered the pullout of American forces in northeastern Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that Moscow is committed to mediating between Syria and Turkey.
Following the U.S.'s withdrawal from northern Syria, Russia has sent troops to the war-torn region to mediate a resolution between Turkey and the Kurds.
Erdogan also said he had "no problem" accepting an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Russia soon to discuss Syria. He then threw into doubt a planned Nov. 13 meeting with Trump, citing anger over the sanctions that Washington imposed Monday on the NATO ally.
Washington’s abrupt withdrawal of its troops pushed the Kurds to strike a deal with the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, allowing his forces to return to regions of northern Syria they abandoned at the height of the eight-year civil war.
It has also allowed Moscow to take a more prominent role as an interlocutor among Assad, the former U.S.-allied Kurds and Turkey.
Russia announced it has already deployed troops outside the flashpoint town of Manbij to keep apart the Syrian military and Turkish-led forces. Syrian forces took control of Manbij as U.S. troops completed their pullout from the town Tuesday. The Syrian and Russian deployments appear to have thwarted Turkey's hopes to capture the town, located just west of the Euphrates River.
Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, also said Moscow will continue to encourage Syria's Kurds and the Syrian government to seek rapprochement following the U.S. withdrawal. The Kurds are hoping to reach a deal with Damascus that preserves at least some degree of the autonomy they seized for themselves during the civil war.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.