US President Donald Trump denied on Wednesday that he had given Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “green light” to launch operations against Kurdish fighters in Syria, but appeared to echo Turkish rhetoric about a Kurdish group being more dangerous than the Islamic State.
“President Erdogan’s decision didn’t surprise me because he’s wanted to do that for a long time,” Trump told reporters. “He’s been building up troops on the border with Syria for a long time.
“I didn’t give him a green light,” Trump said. “Just the opposite of a green light.”
Trump also said the Kurdish rebel PKK, who have waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara, were “probably” a bigger terror threat than the Islamic State jihadist organization.
“The PKK, which is a part of the Kurds, as you know, is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS,” Trump told a news conference at the White House.
Tens of thousands have died since the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. The PKK is considered a terror group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.
Under fire for abandoning America’s Kurdish allies in the anti-IS fight to face a Turkish assault in northern Syria, Trump disparaged the Kurds earlier Wednesday, saying they “are not angels.”
Trump told the press conference that other countries with a presence in Syria, including Iran, were the ones that should handle taking on the Islamic State.
“Russia, Iran, Syria, and to maybe a slightly lesser extent, Turkey, they all hate ISIS as much as we do. And it’s their part of the world. We’re 7,000 miles away,” he said.
However, a senior US administration official insisted Trump’s pullout from Syria will not change his hard line on Iran, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In a Senate hearing, Trump’s Democratic rivals said he had strengthened adversaries by pulling US troops who had permitted de facto autonomy in northeastern Syria by Kurdish fighters, a force that led the battle to crush Islamic State extremists.
Faced with a Turkish incursion, the Kurds asked Assad’s regime to return to the northeast of the war-battered country for the first time in years, with Russia patrolling in hopes of keeping the two sides apart.
“Withdrawing troops in northern Syria and green-lighting Turkey’s brutal incursion gives new life to ISIS and hands over the keys to our national security to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, Iran and Assad,” said Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, replied: “The president’s decision with respect to Syria is not going to change our Iran strategy or the efficacy of it.”
“Our forces in northeast Syria have never had an Iran mission-set,” he said.
But administration officials, notably former national security adviser John Bolton, had cited the Iranian presence in Syria as a reason to maintain US forces.
The administration has also warned that it will not contribute to the reconstruction of the war-battered country so long as Iranian troops are present.
Iran is an arch-foe for the Trump administration, which pulled out of a multinational deal on curbing Tehran’s nuclear program and instead slapped punishing sanctions.
Iran, led by Shiite clerics, counts on Assad, a secular leader from the heterodox Alawite community, as its main ally in the Arab world.
On Monday, another senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkey’s incursion had upended US objectives including “the containment and expulsion of Iran.”