Trump shifts tone on Turkey in effort to halt Syria invasion

A Turkish army tank drove toward the border with Syria near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province Tuesday. (BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)
A Turkish army tank drove toward the border with Syria near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province Tuesday. (BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In a span of 24 hours, President 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 US-allied Kurds — a strategy that has angered Republican and Democratic lawmakers and confused US allies.

Trump tweeted that while US forces ‘‘may be’’ leaving Syria, the United States 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.


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 US 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.’’

The confusion began Sunday when the White House issued a late-night statement saying US forces in northeastern Syria would step aside for what it called an imminent Turkish invasion. The statement made no mention of US efforts to forestall the invasion, leading many to conclude that Trump was, in effect, turning a blind eye to a slaughter of Kurds.


On Monday, amid criticism from some of his staunchest Republican supporters, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Trump suggested he was washing his hands of the Syria conflict, saying in a tweet that ‘‘it is time now for others in the region . . . to protect their own territory.’’ But he also threatened to ‘‘totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey’’ if its military action in Syria went too far.

Administration officials argue that Trump is employing strategy in response to Erdogan’s insistence during a phone call Sunday with Trump that he was moving ahead with a military incursion into Syria. Erdogan seemed to have rejected a joint US-Turkish plan, already being carried out, to create a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border to address Turkey’s security concerns.

Without initially saying his administration was still trying to talk Erdogan out of invading, Trump ordered the 50 to 100 US troops inside that zone to pull back for safety’s sake. He then emphasized his desire to withdraw from Syria entirely, although no such broader pullout has begun.

According to US officials, Turkish troops on 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.

Trump has boasted about US success in defeating the so-called Islamic State, but his critics now accuse him of abandoning a US 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 ISIS fighters.


Striking a notably friendlier tone, Trump on Tuesday said Erdogan will visit the White House on Nov. 13. He defended Ankara as a big US trading partner, saying it supplies steel for F-35 fighter jets. In fact, the Trump administration removed Turkey from the F-35 program last summer because the Turks refused to cancel the purchase of a Russian air defense system that is incompatible with NATO forces. The United States will stop using any Turkish supplies and parts by March 2020.