Trump spoke on Wednesday in a special address from the White House and declared a change of course in US relations with the Middle East, where he said too many American service members had died.
“We’re getting out. Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand. The job of our military is not to police the world,” the US president said.
Trump has been under fire for abruptly withdrawing US troops from northern Syria, with many accusing him of abandoning Kurdish forces, who had been one of the US’s main allies in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
“Other nations must step up and do their fair share,” said Trump of conflict in the region. “I am committed to pursuing a different course, one that leads to victory for America.”
It was unclear when American troops in the region would begin returning home. Hundreds previously deployed in Syria are now based in western Iraq.
Trump also said some forces would remain in Syria’s oil fields despite the broader US withdrawal from the country. “We have secured the oil and, therefore, a small number of US troops will remain in the area where they have the oil,” he said.
Russia on Wednesday warned Kurdish forces to quickly withdraw from the Turkey-Syria border or be crushed by the Turkish army. Moscow added the US “betrayed and abandoned” Syrian fighters. Russia is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s main military ally.
More than 176,000 people have been displaced by the Turkish offensive and hundreds of imprisoned ISIL fighters have escaped during the conflict.
The fate of ISIL fighters in Syrian Kurdish prisons remains up in the air. A senior Trump administration official said while most remained under lock and key, it appeared a small number had fled from YPG incarceration.
US defence chief Mark Esper is expected to focus on Turkey’s operation and the future of the fight against ISIL when he meets NATO partners in Brussels on Thursday.
Esper lashed out at Turkey for its military assault on Syrian Kurdish fighters across the border into Syria, saying Ankara is “heading in the wrong direction” and is getting closer to Russia.
“Turkey put us all in a very terrible situation,” he said, adding Ankara needs to return to being the “responsible ally” it has been in the past.
Rachel Rizzo, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security think-tank, said the Pentagon chief has few options to punish NATO member Turkey.
“As far as NATO-level punishment, I don’t see really what is possible,” Rizzo said.
A number of European countries have suspended weapons sales to Turkey over its military campaign.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday decried NATO’s inability to react to what he called Turkey’s “crazy” offensive, and said it was time Europe stopped acting like a junior ally when it came to the Middle East.
Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said despite criticism from allies over the Syria incursion and its growing ties with Moscow, Turkey remained at the heart of NATO.
“We are at the centre of NATO and we remain determined to carry out all of our responsibilities fully. We are going nowhere,” he said.
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