WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday downplayed the escalating tensions in the Middle East in the aftermath of his abrupt withdrawal of American troops from northeastern Syria, referring to the area as "not our border" and to Kurdish forces as "no angels."
"If Turkey goes into Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria," he said to reporters in the Oval Office. "It’s not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like us to — would like you to believe."
Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria this month has left the Middle East in chaos as Kurdish troops have felt abandoned by the U.S. and left struggling to fend off invading Turkish forces. The absence of the U.S. military has created a power vacuum in the region, allowing Russia to absorb the Kurdish forces and extend their influence in the area.
"If Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that's really up to them," Trump said. "They have a problem with Turkey. They have a problem at a border. It's not our border. We shouldn't be losing lives over it."
In a press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella later on Wednesday, Trump denied giving Turkey the "green light" to invade Syria, while simultaneously acknowledging that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's actions "did not surprise me."
"No, President Erdogan’s decision didn’t surprise me because he’s wanted to do that for a long time. He’s been building up troops on the border with Syria for a long time, as you know," Trump said to reporters.
"And I say: 'Why are we protecting Syria’s land?' Assad’s not a friend of ours. Why are we protecting their land?' And Syria also has a relationship with the Kurds, who by the way, are no angels."
Trump insisted on Wednesday that the fight is over land that "has nothing to do with us." Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are traveling this week to Turkey to persuade Erdogan to pull back on attacks. Erdogan has rejected U.S. calls for a cease-fire in the escalating Syria conflict ahead of their meeting.
Trump also brushed off concerns that withdrawing troops from the area could lead to the re-emergence of the Islamic State militant group.
"By the way, everybody hates ISIS," Trump said. "Some were released just for effect to make it look like, ‘Oh gee, we gotta get back in there,'" he added, making light of reports that some ISIS members had escaped from captivity.
Both Republicans and Democrats have decried Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops, effectively removing any deterrence against Turkish aggression in Syria. The House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to condemn the withdrawal.
In response to Trump’s comments Wednesday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump’s closest allies in Washington who has also emerged as an outspoken critics of his Syria decision, said that the move could be "a complete and utter national security disaster in the making."
Trump later addressed Graham’s criticism at a press conference, telling reporters that Graham "would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years," and applauding himself for not caving to party pressure, noting that it was "probably just politically better for me" to leave U.S. troops in Syria.
Trump boiled it all down to keeping his 2016 campaign promise.
"I campaigned on bringing our soldiers back home, and that's what I am doing," he explained.
CORRECTION (Oct. 16, 2019, 2:54 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article, based on a White House pool report, misquoted Trump in reference to the conflict in Syria. He did not say it is "not our problem." According to a transcript of Trump's televised remarks, he said: "They have a problem with Turkey. They have a problem at a border. It's not our border. We shouldn't be losing lives over it."