President Trump responded on Wednesday to bipartisan condemnation of his decision to move U.S. troops out of northern Syria, telling reporters that Turkey and the Kurds have "hated each other for hundreds of years," and that if the ISIS prisoners that are currently being held by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces escape, "they will be escaping to Europe."
REPORTER: "What if ISIS fighters escape and pose a threat elsewhere?"
TRUMP: "Well they are going to be escaping to Europe, that's where they want to go. They want to go back to their homes. But Europe didn't want them for months. They could have had trials, they could have done whatever they wanted, but as usual, it's not reciprocal. ... When President Obama took the PKK, that's a tough deal because that's been a mortal enemy of Turkey. And so when you bring them into a partnership, it's a tough situation. ... They've hated each other for many, many years."
Context: After Trump's sudden announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from northern Syria, Turkey launched a military offensive in a campaign to "neutralize terror threats against Turkey and lead to the establishment of a safe zone, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes."
- The U.S. partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015 in the fight against ISIS, but Turkey considers the primarily-Kurdish militia to be a terrorist organization.
- The SDF bore the brunt of casualties during the war against the Islamic State, with more than 10,000 killed as the U.S. largely avoided a presence on the ground.
- The SDF is also currently holding about 11,000 ISIS detainees. A Turkish incursion — which the SDF has claimed would result in "all-out war" — is likely to pull their forces away from prison camps and the ongoing campaign against ISIS.
Trump has accused European nations of refusing to take back the prisoners who traveled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State.
- He told reporters Wednesday that he disagrees with Republican allies who have urged him to maintain a U.S. presence in Syria, but said that he supports Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) idea to sanction Turkey if their operation is not conducted in "as humane a way as possible."
- Asked if he is worried that the Syria decision will damage the U.S.' ability to forge future alliances, Trump said "no," adding: "Alliances are easy."