October 16, 2019 / 2:52 PM / a month ago

Trump downplays Turkey's assault in Syria, touts sanctions over fighting

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday played down the crisis in Syria touched off by Turkey’s incursion against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, saying the conflict was between Turkey and Syria and that it was up to the countries there to work it out.

Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House, said imposing U.S. sanctions on Turkey would be better than having U.S. forces fighting in the region, adding that he was confident about the safety of U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey.

“I’d always rather use economic power before I use military power,” Trump said.

Kurdish-allied forces, backed by American troops, had been a strategic U.S. partner in the fight against Islamic State in northeastern Syria before Turkey launched an assault in the area following a phone call between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Trump last week.

The Kurds are “not angels,” Trump said. “They fought with us. We paid a lot of money for them to fight with us, and that’s OK. They did well when they fought with us. They didn’t do so well when they didn’t fight with us.”

Trump has faced harsh criticism for his handling of the situation, including from fellow Republicans. He is scheduled to host congressional leaders at the White House later on Wednesday as lawmakers ready sanctions against Ankara.

“I viewed the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be for the United States strategically brilliant. Our soldiers are out of there. Our soldiers are totally safe. They’ve got to work it out. Maybe they can do it without fighting,” he told reporters.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Italy's President Sergio Mattarella in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Later on Wednesday, Trump’s vice president and top diplomat are scheduled to travel to Ankara to meet with Erdogan, who Trump has invited to the White House next month. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier on Wednesday said the goal was to seek a ceasefire.

Erdogan, speaking to reporters in the Turkish parliament earlier on Wednesday, said he was re-evaluating his planned visit to Washington in November but may visit Russia.

“We’re watching and we’re negotiating and we’re trying to get Turkey to do the right thing, because we’d like to stop wars regardless,” Trump said, adding that it was “fine” for Russia to help Syria.

Reporting by Steve Holland and Makini Brice; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chris Reese and Lisa Shumaker

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