In the face of growing bipartisan anger, President Donald Trump defended his decision to allow a Turkish offensive in northern Syria by saying that the U.S.-allied Kurds — who led the ground campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and are under Turkish attack — did not help the U.S. during World War II.
"Now the Kurds are fighting for their land," Trump told reporters during a press conference on Wednesday night. "They didn't help us in the Second World War, they didn't help us with Normandy, for example."
Trump attributed the points to an article he said he had read, which wasn't identified, that dismissed the importance of the Kurdish alliance. He suggested that Kurds had battled alongside U.S. forces for "their land." "They're there to help us with their land, and that's a different thing."
Many Republicans and Democrats alike would object to that last point. Some 11,000 Kurdish forces died assisting the U.S. in the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria, and high-ranking U.S. diplomats and military officials credit much of the victory over the extremist group to the Kurdish fighters.
Many describe them as the most effective fighting force on the ground, and a reliable ally of the U.S., despite the complications this alliance has caused with NATO ally Turkey. Ankara views the fighters as a security threat on its border because it sees them as indistinguishable from a separate Kurdish terrorist group that is waging a counterinsurgency inside Turkey.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted: "At request of this administration the Kurds served as the primary ground fighters against ISIS in Syria so U.S. troops wouldn't have to." He said the administration "then cut deal with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan allowing him to wipe them out. Damage to our reputation & national interest will be extraordinary & long lasting."
Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., a staunch ally of the president, tweeted on Monday: "The Kurds have fought, bled & died fighting alongside the US. They have been warriors & brothers in battle along the way. POTUS is right to want to end endless wars, but the Turks wiping out the Kurds will ABSOLUTELY NOT be an acceptable outcome after all of that."
Erdogan has pledged to clear the area of "terrorists," and says his aim is to allow a path for the return of Syrian refugees in Turkey to go back home. Numerous U.S. officials have cast doubt on that promise.
Turkey pushed ahead by launching airstrikes and artillery fire against the Kurdish forces on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. The Turkish military confirmed it had "launched the land operation into the east of the Euphrates river" and said it had hit 181 "militant targets."
Activists on the ground say at least seven civilians have been killed. Video footage showed civilians trying to flee as dark plumes of smoke rose on the horizon.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced a bipartisan bill on Wednesday to punish Turkey with sanctions for its "invasion of Syria." The lawmakers have lambasted Trump's move, and expect bipartisan support with a veto-proof majority in the Senate.
In response to the Turkish strikes, Trump issued a statement saying that the U.S. "does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea."
After describing the Kurds' absence on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 and describing the Kurdish fight as one solely for their own land, Trump said, "With all of that being said, we like the Kurds."