Trump lifts sanctions against Turkey, calling the cease-fire in Syria 'permanent'

The announcement comes shortly after Turkey and Syria came to a cease-fire agreement in the northern Syria area Tuesday.

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By Lauren Egan, Allan Smith and Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he would lift all sanctions against Turkey after the country agreed to make the cease-fire in Syria "permanent."

"Earlier this morning, the government of Turkey informed my administration that they would be stopping combat and their offensive in Syria and making the cease-fire permanent," Trump said at the White House. “And it will be permanent.”

After weeks of criticism from members of Congress, including Republicans, Trump claimed vindication for his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region this month. “Let someone else fight” over this “bloodstained sand,” he said.

Trump, however, did express some skepticism that the cease-fire would last, adding that “you will also define 'permanent' in that part of the world as somewhat questionable.”

“The sanctions will be lifted unless something happens that we’re not happy with,” Trump continued.

Trump had recently authorized the sanctions against Turkey following the administration’s abrupt announcement that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from the area, leaving Kurdish forces vulnerable to attacks from Turkey and sparking days of bloodshed in the area.

Trump said Wednesday morning that a “small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area” to protect oil resources, but did not provide an exact figure.

Trump also addressed concerns that the U.S. withdrawal was leading to supporters of the Islamic State militant group escaping from custody, stating that “there were a few that got out" but "they've been largely recaptured.”

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But the U.S. special representative to Syria, Jim Jeffrey, told Congress on Wednesday that this wasn't the case. Testifying in an open session before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Jeffrey stated that more than 100 ISIS prisoners had escaped custody during the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, adding that "we do not know where they are."

Trump's announcement that he would lift all sanctions on Turkey was again met with backlash from within his own party.

"It would be unthinkable to me that Turkey would not suffer consequence for malevolent behavior which was contrary to the interest of the United States and our friends,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters when asked about the administration's decision.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., also expressed skepticism about the removal of sanctions.

"Retreating and putting our security in the hands of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan strengthens our enemies, weakens America, and makes us less safe," Cheney said in a statement. "Turkey must face consequences over their invasion of northern Syria, attacks on the Kurds, and threats against U.S. forces."

And while Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that "without sanctions, there would’ve been no cease-fire," he warned Trump against allowing ISIS to regain strength in the region.

"Without a small American contingent on the ground in Syria, the fight against ISIS will go badly. They will come back," Graham said, adding that it would be wise for the president to work with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces "because if ISIS comes back on [Trump's] watch, he's going to own it."

Trump's announcement came after Kurdish fighters completed their pullout from an area along the Syrian border as part of the U.S. brokered cease-fire agreement.

Trump teased the announcement Wednesday morning on Twitter.

"Big success on the Turkey/Syria Border," Trump wrote. "Safe Zone created! Ceasefire has held and combat missions have ended. Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us. Captured ISIS prisoners secured."

Putin and Erdogan met for hours in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday, ultimately agreeing to a plan that required the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the Syria-Turkey border.

Kurdish fighters withdrew from the border zone hours before the cease-fire deal was set to expire Tuesday as the Turkish and Russian leaders met to negotiate on the border region's fate. Turkey had threatened to relaunch its offensive in the area, which had started earlier this month after Trump announced an abrupt U.S. pullout from the area, if the Kurds did not withdraw. Kurdish officials have said that Turkish military operations were continuing outside the withdrawal zone.

The White House was notified of the completed Kurdish withdrawal Tuesday, a senior Trump administration official said.

The U.S. pullout was met with fierce domestic criticism from both Democrats and Republicans over the idea that the United States was abandoning its Kurdish allies to be killed at the hands of the Turks. The blowback led the Trump administration to broker the five-day cease-fire which expired Tuesday. At the same time, Russia has assumed the role of power broker.