World

Trump assails Kurds, downplays Turkish invasion amid bipartisan condemnation

U.S. President Donald Trump assailed his former Kurdish allies and said things are "very nicely under control" in northern Syria amid an ongoing Turkish military offensive, despite bipartisan condemnation of his troop withdrawal from the region.

U.S. President reportedly had 'meltdown' over House vote, Pelosi says

U.S. President Donald Trump rejected criticism of his withdrawal of troops from Syria that exposed Kurdish allies and precipitated a Turkish invasion. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump assailed his former Kurdish allies and said things are "very nicely under control" in northern Syria amid an ongoing Turkish military offensive, despite bipartisan condemnation of his troop withdrawal from the region.

Trump, who said the Kurds were "no angels," said the conflict was between Turkey and Syria and that it was "fine" for Russia to help its ally Damascus.

"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 said, referring to the Kurdish insurgent group in Turkey linked to Syrian Kurdish fighters. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and other countries.

After Trump's remarks, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted its condemnation of Trump's withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria. Despite stark divisions over Democrats' impeachment inquiry into Trump, Democrats and Republicans banded together Wednesday and approved a nonbinding resolution by 354-60 vote.

The resolution states the opposition to the troop pullback and says Turkey should cease its military action in Syria. And the measure says the White House should present a plan for an "enduring defeat" of ISIS.

The White House later released a letter, dated Oct. 9 — before Turkey's invasion — in which Trump warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "Don't be a tough guy" and "don't be a fool!"

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said U.S. Democratic leaders' White House meeting was cut short after Trump had a "meltdown" over the vote.

"I think that vote — the size of the vote, more than two-to-one of the Republicans voted to oppose what the president did — probably got to the president. Because he was shaken up by it," Pelosi told reporters.

"And that's why we couldn't continue in the meeting, because he was just not relating to the reality of it."

The Senate's top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, said Trump insulted Pelosi by calling her a "third-rate politician." Schumer said the meeting "was not a dialogue. This was sort of a diatribe, a nasty diatribe not focused on the facts."

Senate Republicans stood up for the Syrian Kurds, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who called the partnership "a terrific alliance" that set ISIS back and said he was "sorry we are where we are."

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri added that Erdogan "has not been a reliable ally. The Kurds have been a reliable ally."

Washington announced sanctions to punish Turkey on Monday, but Trump's critics said the steps, mainly a steel tariffs hike and a pause in trade talks, were too feeble to have an impact.

The next day, U.S. prosecutors' charges were unveiled against Turkey's majority state-owned Halkbank for taking part in a scheme to evade Iran sanctions. Washington says the case is unrelated to politics. Halkbank denies wrongdoing and called the case part of the sanctions against Turkey.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer chided Trump's behaviour during a meeting at the White House. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Syrian forces enter key border town

Erdogan said Turkey would not be coerced into stopping its offensive or accept offers for a mediation with the Kurdish fighters as the nation intensifies its military offensive into Syria.

Syrian forces, meanwhile, rolled into the strategic border town of Kobani on Wednesday night, blocking one path for the Turkish military to establish its "safe zone" free of Syrian Kurdish fighters along the frontier.

The seizure of Kobani by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also pointed to a dramatic shift in northeastern Syria: The town was where the U.S. military and Kurdish fighters first united to defeat ISIS four years ago and holds powerful symbolism for Syrian Kurds and their ambitions of self-rule.

The Kurdish-held towns of Manbij and Ras al-Ayn were at the centre of military action by Syria and Turkey on Tuesday. Syrian government forces are aiming to re-establish their hold over the Kurdish-controlled section of Syria (shown in orange), while Turkey is attempting to create a 30-kilometre 'refugee safe-zone' to settle 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey.

The convoys of government forces drove into Kobani after dark, a resident said. The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, was one of the few remaining amid fears of a Turkish attack on the town. Syria's state-run media confirmed its troops entered the town.

Syria's presence in Kobani puts a firm limit on Turkish ambitions in its offensive. The town lies between a Turkish-controlled enclave farther west and smaller areas to the east that Turkey seized in the past week.

In an earlier address to his ruling party legislators, Erdogan vowed to press ahead with the incursion until Turkish troops reach 30 to 35 kilometres inside Syria along a border area where Turkey intends to form a "safe zone."

"Our proposal is for the terrorists to lay down their arms, leave their equipment, destroy the traps they have created and leave the safe zone we [have] designated, as of tonight," Erdogan said. "If this is done, our Operation Peace Spring will end by itself."

Erdogan ruled out direct or indirect talks with the Kurdish fighters, saying Turkey will not negotiate with them.

"We are not looking for a peace mediator nor do we need one."

The Turkish president's comments come a day ahead of a visit by U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence to the Turkish capital Ankara. Pence is tasked with negotiating an end to the attacks along the Syrian border, while Erdogan will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea city of Sochi on Oct. 22, the Turkish presidency said.

Russia moves to fill void

Russia has moved quickly to further entrench its leadership role in the region after Trump ordered the pullout of U.S. forces in northeastern Syria. The American move effectively abandoned Kurdish fighters and cleared the way for Turkey's invasion aimed at crushing them. After heavy criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Washington then scrambled to find new leverage with the Turks, imposing economic sanctions aimed at forcing a ceasefire.

The abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops pushed the Kurds to strike a deal with the Russia-backed government of Assad, allowing its forces to return to regions of northern Syria it had abandoned at the height of the eight-year-old civil war.

Russian and Syrian national flags flutter Wednesday on military vehicles following the capture of Manbij, a Syrian town about 30 kilometres from the Turkish border. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

It has also allowed Moscow to take a more prominent role as an interlocutor among Assad, the former U.S.-allied Kurds and the U.S.'s NATO ally Turkey.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia is committed to mediating between the Syrian government and Turkey.

Russia has already announced it had deployed troops outside the flashpoint town of Manbij to keep apart the two forces. Syrian forces took control of Manbij as U.S. troops completed their pullout from the town on Tuesday. The Syrian and Russian deployments appear to have thwarted Turkey's hopes to capture the town, located just west of the Euphrates River, in its offensive.

In another sign of Moscow's rising profile, France suggested it will also work more closely with Russia in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said in an interview on French television channel BFM on Wednesday that France is notably now looking to Russia, given their "common interests" in defeating ISIS in Syria.

He called on the EU and other members of the coalition fighting ISIS in Syria to regroup as the U.S. appeared to abdicate its leadership role in the region.

With files from The Associated Press

now