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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Trump defends Syria exit as Putin, Erdogan fill a U.S. void

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 20, 2019

By Henry Meyer, Andrey Biryukov and Selcan Hacaoglu Bloomberg

President Donald Trump defended his decision to withdraw from Syria as the fulfillment of a campaign promise, pushing back against criticism from lawmakers in his own party that the abrupt change in policy harms U.S. interests and cedes influence to Russia and Iran.

“I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places,” Trump said Monday on Twitter. “Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working. Just doing what I said I was going to do!”

With the U.S. preparing its exit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have assumed the lead in shaping Syria’s future. At a meeting in Moscow between the two countries’ foreign ministers and intelligence chiefs on Saturday, they agreed to coordinate next steps and professed a common interest in clearing the country of terrorist groups.

But that doesn’t mean Russia and Turkey are completely aligned. The Syrian war has often pitted them on opposite sides, with Russia backing Syrian President Bashar Assad while Turkey was the most vocal proponent of overthrowing and replacing him.

To further complicate the issue, while Trump said that NATO ally Turkey has promised to clear out what’s left of Islamic State in Syria, Erdogan has also been looking for an opportunity to hit back at a U.S.-backed Kurdish group in Syria, the YPG, which led some of the most intense fighting against Islamic State. Turkey views the YPG as a menace to its internal security and classifies it as a terrorist organization.

Trump’s decision left the YPG exposed to an invasion by Turkey’s army, the second-largest in NATO, and prompted the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee from South Carolina, has been implying that his efforts to persuade Trump to slow down the withdrawal were working, telling CNN on Sunday that “if we leave now, the Kurds are going to get slaughtered.” He said Trump would be talking to Turkey to make sure that war didn’t break out “between the Turks and our allies the Kurds.”

Graham also cited the continuing presence in Syria of Iran, Trump’s designated arch-enemy in the Middle East, saying, “If we leave now, there’ll be a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut in terms of supplying weapons against Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to ask Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to slow the pullback of U.S. troops from Syria, a senior Israeli official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity Monday due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Trump already has backed away from the notion of an immediate withdrawal, saying a week ago that the pullout of U.S. troops from the area would be “slow & highly coordinated.”

Facts on the ground have changed rapidly in the two weeks since Trump first tweeted his intention to bring home U.S. troops.

With support from the Kremlin, Syria’s Assad sent government troops to retake control of the key town of Manbij on Friday, replacing the U.S.-backed YPG forces as the dominant power in the area and preempting a Turkish invasion. Assad has now reasserted his control of most of the country after an eight-year war that killed hundreds of thousands and left many of the country’s cities as uninhabitable wastelands.

Russia and Turkey have a crucial role to play in ending the conflict and mapping out the future of Syria, Putin told Erdogan in a New Year’s message published by the Kremlin on Sunday, a day after the meeting in Moscow between their envoys. “Moscow and Ankara are making a decisive contribution to the fight against terrorism in Syria, as well as to the promotion of a political settlement in that country,” it said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Erdogan in a phone call Sunday that she expects Turkey to act with “restraint and responsibility” after the U.S. withdrawal, according to a government spokeswoman. Merkel praised Turkey for taking in millions of Syrian refugees, the spokeswoman said.

While Islamic State has been pushed back thanks to coordinated efforts, the group remains a significant threat that warrants further attention, Merkel’s spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. Erdogan and Merkel discussed the fight against terror and the issue of migrants moving toward Europe, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported, citing the presidency.

Turkish officials had been seeking Russia’s approval to access Syrian airspace for strikes against Kurdish militants and Islamic State, Hurriyet newspaper reported Friday, without saying how it got the information. Russia has said the Syrian government should retake areas vacated by the U.S., but also joined Trump in endorsing a role for Turkey in continuing the fight against Islamic State.

In a New Year’s message to Assad, Putin said Russia “will continue to provide all possible assistance” to Syria in “the fight against the forces of terrorism, in defense of state sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

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