WASHINGTON – In a span of 24 hours, President Donald Trump moved from threatening to obliterate Turkey's economy if it invades Syria to inviting its president to visit the White House.
But Trump did not back away Tuesday from a plan to withdraw American troops from Syria as he tried to persuade Turkey not to invade the country and attack the U.S.-allied Kurds – a needle-threading strategy that has angered Republican and Democratic lawmakers and confused U.S. allies.
“This is really dangerous,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Trump tweeted that while U.S. forces “may be” leaving Syria, the U.S. has not abandoned the Kurds, who stand to be destroyed if Turkey follows through with its planned invasion. The Kurds lead a group of Syria fighters who have been steadfast and effective American allies in combating the Islamic State in Syria. Turkey, however, sees the Kurds as terrorists and a border threat.
Trump has boasted about U.S. success in defeating the so-called Islamic State, but his critics now accuse him of abandoning a U.S. ally, setting the Kurds up to be killed. They also worry that if the Kurds end up fighting Turkish forces, they won't be able to guard detention centers in Syria that house thousands of captured IS fighters.
Joseph Votel, a retired Army general who headed Central Command's military operations in Syria until last spring, wrote on The Atlantic website Tuesday that mutual trust was a key ingredient in the U.S. partnership with the Kurds.
“The sudden policy change this week breaks that trust at the most crucial juncture and leaves our partners with very limited options,” Votel wrote.
Jonathan Schanzer, a Syria scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said even a limited Turkish incursion into northern Syria could quickly escalate.
“The president is doubling down on this – seems to be reversing course,” Schanzer said. “He's trying to convey to the American people that he's made the right decision. Of course, (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan is going to see this as a green light.”
According to U.S. officials, Turkish troops Tuesday were massed along the border in apparent preparation for an incursion across the border. But they said that so far, there have been no signs of an actual assault beginning.
The officials, who were not authorized to discuss details of military intelligence, said there are between 5,000 and 10,000 Turkish troops along the border apparently ready to go.
Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the new Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, participated in Trump's phone call with Erdogan on Sunday, contrary to some reports that Pentagon leaders had been blindsided by the decision to pull troops back.