WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump, facing scathing bipartisan condemnation for clearing the way for Turkey's invasion of Syria, defended his handling of the matter on Wednesday as "strategically brilliant" and downplayed the importance of longtime allies the Kurds, saying they are "not angels."
"It's not our problem," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, hours before Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are set to travel to Turkey to try to negotiate a ceasefire and avoid a humanitarian crisis.
Trump dismissed mounting criticism on Capitol Hill and from other allies in the region while further downplaying the alliance with the Kurds, many of whom fought alongside U.S. troops against ISIS. The House is set to vote Wednesday on a bipartisan resolution condemning Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
The president's latest remarks came days after he appeared to diminish the U.S.-Kurd alliance by saying the group is "fighting for their land" and noting that the Kurds had not fought with Allied powers in World War II.
"They're not angels," Trump said Wednesday. "Go back and take a look."
The president, who described his decision to withdraw troops from Syria as "strategically brilliant" despite the bipartisan criticism, brushed aside reports that Russian troops have moved into the territory abandoned by the U.S.
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"They've got a lot of sand over there," Trump said. "There's a lot of sand that they can play with."
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 But U.S. troops remained in Syria on Wednesday despite Trump's statement that they'd been withdrawn, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly.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.
Graham on Trump: 'Outrageously dangerous'
Trump's remarks on Syria drew renewed ire from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been a close Trump ally on many issues but critical of the president's Middle East policy.
"What the president said today is just outrageously dangerous," Graham said. "It undercuts Pence and Pompeo. And I don't agree with his construct that Turkey's invasion of Syria is of no concern."
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the fighting in the region has created a power vacuum that U.S. geopolitical foes are beginning to exploit.
"This is opening things up to the Russians. They're literally where we deserted, in our camps," McCaul said. "It's an opening for Iran, it's an opening to reinvigorate ISIS.…I think the Russians and Iran are going to take over that country."
Trump announced additional sanctions on Turkey on Monday, though critics have said those are less significant than the economic punishments lawmakers are considering.
Pence and Pompeo are set to travel to Turkey late Wednesday to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to try to negotiate a ceasefire. Erdogan initially indicated he wouldn't meet with the U.S. delegation but now has expressed a willingness to do so.
Stabilizing force in Syria
Analysts have said the U.S. presence in northern Syria had stabilized the area, and made military conflict more likely; the post-withdrawal influx of Turkish and Russian troops makes it more dangerous.
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described the president's remarks as "yet another ignominious moment in Trump's treatment of American allies."
But, Dubowitz said, this one is "particularly egregious given that the Kurds lost 11,000 men and women fighting ISIS and helping save American lives."
Anti-Trump Republican strategist Rick Tyler agreed.
"Well, I hope they weren't angels, they were killing our enemies," Tyler said. "Trump has shown the world that he is a weak, easily manipulated, corrupt and disloyal. We will pay in treasure and blood tomorrow for his misguided ill-informed decisions today."
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, Maureen Groppe, Courtney Subramanian
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump: Turkey's Syria invasion 'not our problem;' Kurds 'not angels'