As Turkish soldiers launched an assault on U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria and panicked civilians fled the battle zone, the White House sought to tamp down intense criticism over what many view as Washington’s acquiescence in the incursion.
Turkey’s forces crossed the border on Wednesday, carrying out airstrikes and artillery barrages against the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish militia that has fought alongside the U.S. in efforts to dismantle the Islamic State in Syria.
Turkey accuses the SDF of having links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish separatist group based in Turkey and Iraq, which is responsible for years of violent attacks within Turkey.
Also on Wednesday, U.S. officials said two British nationals believed to be part of an ISIS group that released gruesome execution videos of themselves beheading hostages and were known as “The Beatles” because of their British accents, were moved out of a detention center in Syria into U.S. custody at an undisclosed location.
El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, held by Kurdish fighters, were part of the group believed to have beheaded American journalist James Foley in August 2014.
The news came amid concern that Kurdish fighters who had been carrying out the fight against ISIS would be diverted to defending themselves against Turkish forces, providing an opening for a resurgence of the terrorist group.
Along the Turkey-Syria border, residents reportedly piled their belongings into vehicles or escaped on foot as Turkish forces struck several towns in the region. Plumes of smoke were seen rising near the town of Qamishli, which lies just over the border, late Wednesday, according to The Associated Press.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported fighting farther south between Turkish troops and Kurdish militiamen in the northern countryside of Aleppo.
The observatory reported artillery attacks on the key cities of Raqqa and Hasakah.
Meanwhile, in Washington, President Trump condemned the Turkish incursion, calling it a “bad idea” and appeared to downplay the importance of the U.S. alliance with the SDF.
“The Kurds are fighting for their land,” the president said, speaking to reporters in the Roosevelt Room.
“And as somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example. They mentioned names of different battles. But they’re there to help us with their land and that’s a different thing,” he said.
It wasn’t clear what article Trump was referring to, but some suggested it was an opinion piece published Tuesday in the conservative Townhall.
In a major policy shift announced after a Sunday telephone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House said U.S. forces in the area of Turkey’s planned operation would stand aside.
That decision has drawn concern and criticism at home and abroad, from U.S. allies and from within the ranks of the president’s own party.
In a statement, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed concern about Turkey’s invasion “destabilizing the region, exacerbating humanitarian suffering, and undermining the progress made against” the Islamic State.
Speaking Monday on Fox News’ Fox and Friends, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham called it an “impulsive decision” to remove U.S. troops from the area and allow Turkey a free hand against the Kurds, saying it was “short-sighted and irresponsible.” In another appearance on Fox on Wednesday, Graham warned that abandoning the Kurds would be the biggest mistake of the Trump presidency.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has insisted that the U.S. did not give a green light to Turkey to launch its Northern Syria offensive.
Speaking with the PBS NewsHour, Pompeo said he’s “confident that President Trump understands the threat” and touted the record of the White House on defeating ISIS in Syria.
“Remember where we were when this administration came into office and just judge us by our results,” he said. “We have achieved a good outcome there.”