National Politics

Trump floats mediator role in Turkey-Kurd fight amid criticism

President Donald Trump said the U.S. has three options in dealing with Turkey's incursion into northern Syria: send the American military back in, unleash punishing sanctions on Turkey or mediate between the two sides.

Trump has pushed back at rising bipartisan criticism of his decision this week to have U.S. forces in northern Syria pull back as Turkish troops move into the country, attacking Kurdish militias that long fought Islamic State terrorists alongside American troops. He says he's carrying out campaign promises to start getting the U.S. out of "endless wars," but critics say he's exposed loyal allies to the risk of slaughter.

"I don't think the American people want to see us go back in with our military, go back into that area again," Trump told reporters in Washington on Thursday after tweeting about the options as he saw them. "We won, we left the area, I don't think we want to go back in. Let's see what happens."

Denunciations of the president's decision continued to rise on Thursday. Following criticism from key Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rep. Liz Cheney, former Trump National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the Syria move undermines the U.S. war on terrorism. U.S. forces in northern Syria were defending "vital interests," McMaster said at an event in Washington on Thursday.

Administration officials argue that Trump's decision to shift some U.S. troops didn't constitute a "green light" for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to send troops into Syria. They suggested that Trump and Erdogan have an understanding about what Turkey can do in Syria, and that the president has an arsenal of sanctions he could place on Ankara if it crosses unspecified red lines.

"The president has said very clearly, I think he said it again this morning, he will use economic sanctions and all the tools of American diplomatic power to try and convince the Turks that they need to back up from the activity that they engaged in, if they should cross that line," Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in an interview on "Full Court Press With Greta Van Susteren" scheduled to air Sunday.

It wasn't clear whether the president was serious in floating his mediation proposal. A State Department official declined to comment on the offer other than to say the president has asked for the department to help foster talks that could lead to a cease-fire.

Yet Trump's suggestion echoed offers he's made in other conflicts, several of which go back decades, as does Turkey's conflict with Kurdish militias in the country that it considers terrorists.

At the United Nations General Assembly last month, Trump reiterated an offer first made in July to mediate between Pakistan and India over the long-disputed Kashmir region. Both sides declined the proposal.

The latest Kashmir offer came weeks after an aborted attempt to bring Taliban and Afghan government officials to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., in early September. Trump canceled that meeting at the last minute. The administration has also struggled to produce a broader peace plan – drafted by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner – to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The president isn't always eager to throw himself into intractable disputes. Earlier this year he bemoaned the demands on his time after he said South Korea's President Moon Jae-In had asked him to mediate a dispute with Japan's government.

"I said, 'How many things do I have to get involved in?'" Trump said. "It's like a full-time job, getting involved between Japan and Korea."

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