WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “don’t be a tough guy” in a letter to his counterpart before Ankara launched a deadly incursion in northern Syria.
The Oct. 9 letter, confirmed by a senior administration official, struck an unusually casual tone for correspondence between two foreign leaders discussing Turkey’s plans to invade the restive region. It came three days after Erdogan spoke to Trump about his plans to mount an offensive against Kurdish forces, many of whom fought alongside U.S. troops against the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group in northern Syria.
Following the Oct. 6 phone call, the president announced his intention to withdraw troops from Syria, clearing the way for Turkey to invade Syria and drawing a rare bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill.
“Let’s work out a good deal! You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy – and I will,” Trump wrote.
Trump urged Erdogan to carry out his offensive in a humanitarian way but declined to delineate what exactly that entailed.
“Don’t let the world down,” he said, adding he had assurances from Gen. Mazloum Kobani, commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), about making concessions ahead of Turkey’s planned assault.
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“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen.”
In the last line of the letter, the U.S. president warned, “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later.”
During a press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella Wednesday, Trump referred to the letter while arguing he did not give Erdogan the “green light” to invade Syria when he made the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region.
The administration in recent days has repeatedly emphasized Trump did not endorse the Turkish incursion in an effort to control the political fallout over the president’s decision to pull troops from Syria, but the White House statement about his call with Erdogan made no mention of warning against it.
Facing mounting pressure from both sides of the aisle, Trump announced a fresh round of sanctions against Turkey for its invasion of Syria on Monday, calling for an immediate ceasefire in the region.
Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are traveling to Ankara to attempt to negotiate a ceasefire and allay concerns over a humanitarian crisis. Erdogan told reporters Wednesday he refused to meet Pompeo and Pence, but an aide later walked back the comments.
More than 90 House Republicans on Wednesday introduced legislation that would require the president to impose far-reaching sanctions on Turkey. The legislation, led by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., seeks to ban U.S. military transactions with Turkey and would also slap economic penalties on Erdogan and other high-ranking members of his government.
The House, meanwhile, voted 354-60 on Wednesday to approve a rare bipartisan rebuke of Trump’s handling of the situation. Two-thirds of the Republicans joined with the Democrats to support the measure.
Following the resolution’s passing, Democrats walked out of a White House meeting on Syria, claiming President Donald Trump insulted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and launched into a “diatribe.”
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The president has repeatedly framed his decision in Syria as part of his broader pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from foreign entanglements.
But U.S. troops remained in Syria on Wednesday despite Trump’s statement that they’d been withdrawn, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly. The military continues to close outposts in Syria housing U.S. commandos, the official said. The military has concerns for their safety because militias supported by Turkey are viewed as a potential threat in Syria to American troops, who are being evacuated by aircraft and convoys.
It’s not clear how many of the 1,000 service members Trump intends to withdraw from Syria will return to the United States versus being redeployed to other countries in the region.
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said while the letter is fodder for political satire, it raises questions about why Trump did not threaten sanctions in his initial call with Erdogan.
“President Trump sent this letter three days after the phone call with Erdogan and on the day Turkish troops were on the move. Apart from its remarkable language, which would make for great political satire if the consequences weren’t so dangerous, it raises the obvious question: Why not warn the Turkish leader of these consequences before he invaded Syria as a deterrent instead of after when it was too late?”
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