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Trump Claims Credit for a Syria Cease-Fire and Says U.S. Role in Region Is Over


WASHINGTON — President Trump announced on Wednesday that Turkey had agreed to a permanent cease-fire in northeast Syria, claiming that the United States was bringing peace to the region after decades of failed efforts.

Pushing back against criticism that he upended American policy in the Middle East by enabling a Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters that has empowered Russia and Iran, the president insisted that his approach had defused a historically dangerous situation even as he washed his hands of it.

“Turkey, Syria and all forms of the Kurds have been fighting for centuries,” Mr. Trump said from the Diplomatic Room at the White House. “We have done them a great service and we’ve done a great job for all of them. And now, we’re getting out.”

“Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand,” he added.

By all but ending America’s modest troop presence in northeast Syria, Mr. Trump effectively surrendered Washington’s influence in territory that three weeks ago was essentially a United States protectorate to Russia, Iran and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

With threats of economic sanctions and diplomatic demands, the Trump administration has scrambled to end the fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish fighters that ensued, and that last week sent Vice President Mike Pence to Ankara to negotiate a pause in the fighting.

Crucial to the cease-fire was the agreement struck a day earlier between Turkey and Russia to jointly police a border zone in northern Syria and rid it of Kurdish fighters. But Mr. Trump claimed full credit.

Mr. Trump also announced he would lift the modest sanctions he imposed on Turkey for its border incursion. At the president’s direction, the Treasury Department said it was removing sanctions that it imposed this month on Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, along with the minister of national defense, minister of energy and natural resources, and minister of the interior.

Treasury officials did not mention the increased tariffs that Mr. Trump imposed on Turkish steel at the same time the United States announced the sanctions on Oct. 14. Mr. Trump said at the time that steel tariffs on Turkey would rise to 50 percent from 25 percent.

The president’s remarks capped an extraordinary month in which the United States reversed its yearslong policy in northern Syria and abandoned Kurdish fighters who joined American forces to defeat the Islamic State.

Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists. In an Oct. 6 telephone call, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan informed Mr. Trump that he would invade the Kurdish-held region in northeast Syria to combat them; the American leader responded by ordering United States troops out of the way.

But many Democrats and some prominent Republicans have called the American retreat a historic foreign policy debacle that undermines Washington’s credibility with allies, empowers American rivals and gives the Islamic State a chance to regroup.

“President Trump seems determined to keep handing political and military victories to Russia and Syria, kowtowing to Turkey and opening the door for further Iranian expansion in the region,” said Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

In the weeks since his call with Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Trump has repeatedly returned to his 2016 campaign themes of concluding “endless wars” and avoiding “regime change.”

But Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said the Trump administration had, in fact, pushed Turkey into the initial pause in violence. And he warned against allowing Russian, Turkish or Syrian government forces to police the northern Syrian border, doubting their ability to ward off the Islamic State.

“While I agree that America is not the policeman of the world, I firmly believe the American military is the most capable to protect America, and should be used wisely to do so,” Mr. Graham said in a statement. He said American air forces should patrol the skies above the safe zone.

Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah and an ardent critic of the president, called it “unthinkable” that the Trump administration would lift economic sanctions that sought to punish Turkey for invading Syria.

The president on Wednesday accused his critics of calling for “yet another military intervention” that potentially could lead to war against Turkey.

But that view was virtually nonexistent; many congressional leaders argued that Mr. Trump could simply have left American troops in northeast Syria to deter Turkish action, as they had for years. And they questioned why the Trump administration never imposed stringent economic sanctions against Ankara, and that he brandished them as a threat only after Mr. Erdogan’s tanks rolled across the border.

Flanked by Mr. Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the White House national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, Mr. Trump portrayed himself as sidestepping war. He insisted that the halt in fighting, which has killed dozens of people and displaced thousands, was an American achievement.

“This was an outcome created by us, the United States, and nobody else,” Mr. Trump said. “No other nation, very simple.”

But on Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia committed his military to joint security patrols with Turkish forces to secure a lasting cease-fire in northern Syria, redrawing the battle lines of that country’s eight-year civil war.

Hours later — well before Mr. Trump’s announcement — the Turkish Army halted its incursion into a Kurdish-run region of northern Syria on Wednesday morning, saying “at this stage, there is no further need to conduct a new operation outside the present operation area.”

Kurdish authorities have yet to respond to the deal, and had earlier agreed to let Russian and Syrian government forces inside the area they had held. By Wednesday afternoon, Syrian state news media reported, government troops had deployed to parts of the region for the first time in five years, and Russian forces had also appeared in the area.

In his statement, Mr. Trump referred to unnamed American leaders who “got us into the Middle East mess but never had the vision or the courage to get us out.”

“How many Americans must die in the Middle East in the midst of these ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts?” he added. “

But the president said “a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area where they have the oil.” He added, “We’re going to be protecting it, and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future.”

In a briefing later for reporters, a senior Trump administration official said that the remaining American troops would focus on preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State, the terrorist group that had ruled much of eastern Syria until it was largely defeated by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The official also cited an “ancillary benefit” to Kurds and other Syrian Democratic Forces remaining in control of the oil. The official could not explain how oil in that area, which legally belongs to the government of Syria, would be transported or sold. “We’ll keep an eye on that,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Beyond pushing the Kurdish fighters away from the border, Mr. Erdogan envisions the Turkish and Russian-patrolled “safe zone” as a destination for resettling 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Those civilians for years fled to Turkey as a result of Syria’s bloody civil war. They now face an uncertain fate against reports of Turkish-backed militias brutalizing Kurdish activists and shelling Kurdish villages, said Barbara A. Leaf, a former American ambassador who is now director of Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“If it were possible to make a terrible situation still worse, the president has done so,” Ms. Leaf said.

Alan Rappeport contributed reporting from Washington, Patrick Kingsley from Istanbul and Carlotta Gall from Akcakale, Turkey.


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