WASHINGTON — Syrian Kurds facing a Turkish military operation did not “help us in Normandy,” US President Donald Trump said Wednesday, defending his widely criticized decision to clear the way for the assault.
The Kurdish forces — which the US partnered to combat the Islamic State group in Syria — are “fighting for their land,” Trump said.
“As somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example,” he said.
The president was apparently referring to a piece by a columnist on the conservative Townhall website supporting Trump’s decision to pull American forces back from Syria’s northern frontier, which opened the way for the Turkish operation.
Trump has faced a bipartisan storm of criticism since the White House made the surprise announcement on Sunday.
Trump criticizes *the Kurds* for not helping America in WWII, "they didn't help us with Normandy." (!!!) pic.twitter.com/yC8yijgjTh
— Oliver Willis (@owillis) October 9, 2019
The Kurds “are there to help us with their land, and that’s a different thing,” said Trump.
“We have spent tremendous amounts of money on helping the Kurds in terms of ammunition, in terms of weapons, in terms of money, in terms of pay. With all of that being said, we like the Kurds,” he added.
Brett McGurk, who served as the US envoy to the international coalition against the Islamic State group, has in the past disputed Trump’s assertions on that subject, saying that the “weapons provided were meager” and “nearly all stabilization funding came from the @coalition.”
Trumps comments came hours after Turkey launched a broad assault on Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria, with intensive bombardment followed by a ground offensive made possible by the withdrawal of US troops.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the attack on Twitter and soon after jets and artillery targeted Kurdish positions along the full width of the border, sending thousands of civilians fleeing their homes.
That was followed late in the evening by the beginning of a ground operation, the Turkish defense ministry said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said 16 members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia were killed in the early hours of the Turkish offensive.
Both the SOHR and SDF reported heavy clashes near the city of Tel Abad.
Turkey’s defense ministry said on twitter that its forces had struck 181 Kurdish “terror group” targets so far.
The spokesman for one of the pro-Turkish Syrian militant groups told AFP the land phase of the operation began in Tal Abad, and Turkish media reported special forces and armored vehicles had entered at several points along the border.
The assault had seemed inevitable since Trump on Sunday announced a military pullback from the border, but the attack triggered international condemnation and an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council set for Thursday.
The Arab League announced late Wednesday it was convening an emergency meeting in Cairo on October 12 to discuss the situation.
The US withdrawal smashed its alliance with the Kurdish forces who spearheaded five years of ground battles against the Islamic State group in Syria.
Trump warned Wednesday that if the Turkish operation is not conducted “in as humane a way as possible,” he would “wipe out” the country’s economy.”
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg urged Turkey to show “restraint” in its operation against Kurdish forces in Syria, warning that the fight against the Islamic State group should not be put at risk.
The SDF called on the international community to impose a no-fly zone to protect against “an imminent humanitarian crisis.”
Erdogan, who dubbed the attack “Operation Peace Spring,” says the offensive is necessary to curb the power of the SDF due to its ties with Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey.
He also wants a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border where Turkey could send back some of the 3.6 million refugees it hosts from the eight-year civil war.