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Thousands flee Turkish assault in Northeast Syria as Trump offers to mediate

President Donald J. Trump deliver remarks on Friday, June 14, 2019, in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Thousands of people have fled their homes and dozens have been killed as Turkey stepped up its assault on Syrian Kurdish forces and momentum built in the U.S. Congress to impose sanctions on Ankara for its actions in northeast Syria.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump on October 10 said he would be ready to “mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds.” His decision to remove U.S. forces who had been helping Kurdish forces in the region preceded Turkey’s military offensive.

“We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!” he wrote in a Twitter post.

Later, when asked by reporters about his options, Trump said, “I hope we can mediate.”

He added that the United States is “going to possibly do something very, very tough with respect to sanctions and other financial things” against Turkey.

As he spoke, 29 members of Trump’s Republican party in the House of Representatives announced that they would introduce legislation to impose sanctions on Ankara for its actions in northern Syria.

“President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and his regime must face serious consequences for mercilessly attacking our Kurdish allies in northern Syria,” Republican Representative Liz Cheney, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said in a statement that did not specifically criticize Trump.

Republicans in the House and Senate have been unusually vocal against Trump’s October 6 announcement that he was pulling U.S. troops out of northern Syria, seen by critics as a betrayal of the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a co-sponsor of the Senate sanctions package announced a day earlier, said the president’s decision was made “completely against everybody else’s advice.” Graham, a senior Republican, has been a leading supporter of Trump’s policies.

Turkey launched its offensive against U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces on October 9, initially with warplanes and artillery and later with ground forces. Erdogan said the offensive had the aim to create a “safe zone” and targeted Kurdish fighters and the Islamic State (IS) extremists in northern Syria.

Turkey had long threatened an attack on the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, whom Ankara considers terrorists.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria, has been a key U.S. ally in defeating IS in the war-torn country.

Trump initially defended his move saying he had been elected on “getting out of these ridiculous endless wars” and that “Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out.”

But amid accusations from the YPG that it had been “stabbed in the back” and criticism from both U.S. Republicans and Democrats, Trump also threatened to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it goes “off limits.”

The U.S. president later said he had told Erdogan there would be “big trouble” if “any of our people get hurt” or if the Turkish military’s actions were not “humane.”

Asked what actions would violate Trump’s warning, a U.S. official told reporters in a briefing they would include “ethnic cleansing…indiscriminate artillery, air, and other fires directed at civilian populations.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “we have not seen significant examples” of such activities and that the Turks “really have not engaged in great depth or in great numbers inside the border yet.”

International condemnation of the Turkish assault has been quick, although a divided UN Security Council on October 10 failed to agree on a statement, with Europeans demanding a halt to military action and Syrian ally Russia calling for “restraint” and “direct dialogue” between Syria and Turkey.

France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called for an emergency meeting of the U.S.-led coalition against IS terrorists. Many people have expressed concerns that the thousands of IS prisoners being held by Syrian Kurdish fighters could be allowed to flee in the turmoil surrounding the Turkish offensive.

The Syrian conflict began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011 and has since killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.

Russia and Iran have backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States and Turkey have supported differing rebel groups. Islamic State also entered the fighting and was opposed by all other sides.