President Donald Trump on Monday defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the northern border of Syria, saying if Turkey does anything he considers "off limits" that he would "totally destroy and obliterate" the country's economy.
The U.S. military began withdrawing troops from northern Syria on Monday, paving the way for what the White House on Sunday referred to as a "long-planned" Turkish operation in the area. The Pentagon issued a statement later on Monday clarifying they would not support or endorse such an operation.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have condemned the president's plan, calling it a betrayal that would leave Kurdish forces who've taken the lead in fighting ISIS terrorists for the United States at the mercy of the Turkish military. Turkey has long considered Kurdish fighters in Syria as a threat and experts on Monday told NBC News that the U.S. withdrawal could destabilize the region.
Trump, who spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by phone prior to Sunday's announcement, did not say what actions he would consider to be "off limits."
At a White House event later Monday, Trump was asked why he was siding with Turkey and its authoritarian president over allies who have been fighting the Islamic State for years. He said, "I'm not siding with anyone."
He also said he told Erdogan if any of "our people" got hurt there would be "big trouble." He said that the U.S. would "try" to protect the Kurds against the Turkish military.
"The Kurds are natural enemies [with Turkey], they’ve been fighting for hundreds of years. We interject ourselves into wars, and tribal wars, and revolution, they’re not the kind of things you settle the way you want to settle," he said. "China and Russia love that we are bogged down.
Trump also brushed off a suggestion that U.S. military officials were blindsided by the move.
"I consulted with everybody," he said. "I always consult with everybody."
In an earlier tweet, he argued: "The endless and ridiculous wars are ENDING! We will be focused on the big picture, knowing we can always go back & BLAST!"
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle spoke out against Trump's decision.
“Once again, President Trump is deserting an ally in a foolish attempt to appease an authoritarian strongman," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in reference to Erdogan. "By turning operational responsibility over to the Turks, President Trump has abandoned our Kurdish partners. This decision poses a dire threat to regional security and stability, and sends a dangerous message to Iran and Russia, as well as our allies, that the United States is no longer a trusted partner.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R.-Penn., said in a statement that the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the northern Syrian border poses "a significant threat to our national security and risks reversing the progress made in the region to destroy ISIS."
"It could also lead to war between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, a result that will boost enemy regimes in Syria, Iran, and Russia," Toomey said. "This betrayal of the Kurds will also severely harm our credibility as an ally the world over.”
Trump shrugged off the criticisms while speaking to reporters at the White House. "They have their opinion, and a lot of people do," he said, but others "are extremely thrilled." "Many people agree with it very strongly," Trump said.