When Donald J. Trump speaks, his message is usually easy to understand: “Trust me. I am the greatest. All good things come from me. And everything is beautiful.” That was his message 30 years ago when he was selling unbuilt condos to Soviet money launderers, and it's his core message today as president about anything from the maxed-out economy to, well, the unbuilt border “wall.”
But the actual content of Trump's remarks often is distinct from the message. Among the truncated sentences, muddled analogies, half-truths and outright lies, there may be kernels of insight into what he really has been thinking or what he's been hearing. To be sure, delving into the rhetorical muck is a little like plumbing the depths of a septic tank for lost coins, but there is something to be learned nonetheless, and Trump's remarks on Wednesday about Turkey, Syria, Kurds, and "the bloodstained sands" are a striking example.
One starts with a transcript, which usually is posted on whitehouse.gov, but is not always easy to find. Type “Turkey” into the site's search engine and (of course) the first thing that pop's up is “Turkey Pardoning,” about sparing the bird on Thanksgiving. But with a bit of filtering, there it is: “Remarks by President Trump on the Situation in Northern Syria.”
Diplomatic Reception Room
11:41 A.M. EDT [October 23, 2019]
THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you very much. My fellow Americans, I greet you this morning from the White House to announce a major breakthrough toward achieving a better future for Syria and for the Middle East. It’s been a long time.
DECRYPTION: This is pure fiction. The president is talking about an almost complete capitulation to Turkey's ambitions as it seizes Syrian territory in the name of self-declared national security. To call this a major breakthrough for a "better future" is an uncomfortable but probably oblivious echo of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin's declaration of "peace for our time" after Hitler assured him at Munich all he really wanted was a little chunk of Czechoslovakia. For 70 years, since the waning days of World War II, the United States and the United Nations have tried to counter such actions through international institutions and international laws. Trump is simply ignoring that history, and those laws.
Over the last five days, you have seen that a ceasefire that we established along Syria’s border has held, and it’s held very well, beyond most expectations. Early this morning, the government of Turkey informed my administration that they would be stopping combat and their offensive in Syria, and making the ceasefire permanent. And it will indeed be permanent. However you would also define the word “permanent” in that part of the world as somewhat questionable, we all understand that. But I do believe it will be permanent.
Clearly Trump does not have much faith the ceasefire will be permanent, and with reason.
I have therefore instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to lift all sanctions imposed on October 14th in response to Turkey’s original offensive moves against the Kurds in Syria’s northeast border region. So the sanctions will be lifted unless something happens that we’re not happy with.
The sanctions announced were never going to deter Turkey, and it's not clear that, over the course of only nine days, any were implemented.
This was an outcome created by us, the United States, and nobody else, no other nation. Very simple. And we’re willing to take blame, and we’re also willing to take credit. This is something they’ve been trying to do for many, many decades. Since then, others have come out to help, and we welcome them to do so. Other countries have stepped forward, they want to help, and we think that’s great. The nations in the region must ultimately take on the responsibility of helping Turkey and Syria police their border. We want other nations to get involved.
The only thing clear about this paragraph is that the president is none too subtly conflating the nation with Donald J. Trump. His unusual, indeed almost unheard of, suggestion that he is "ready to take the blame" for failure is rhetorical as he once again credits himself, but it also suggests rather more misgivings about the situation than he intends in his overall message.
We’ve secured the oil, and, therefore, a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area where they have the oil. And we’re going to be protecting it, and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future.
Why? The United States does not need Syrian oil. The concern may be that the so-called Islamic State has not been so thoroughly defeated as Trump claims, and might re-take the fields. But that seems unlikely. The more obvious threat is from Russia and the Syrian regime. A significant if brief battle to defend the fields was fought on Feb. 7, 2018, when Syrian government troops and Russian mercenaries tried to take them and the Kurds and Americans and U.S. air power drove them off, a fight subsequently described in detail by The New York Times. Now, contrary to what Trump says, neither he nor the U.S. Special Operations Forces on the ground will be deciding what happens to those fields. It will be, yes, the Russians and the Syrian regime that tried and failed to win them back almost two years ago who determine their fate.
In any event, by the moves that we’ve made, we are achieving a much more peaceful and stable area between Turkey and Syria, including a 20-mile-wide safe zone. An interesting term, “safe zone.” That’s the term we’re using it. Hopefully, that zone will become safe. Thousands and thousands of people have been killed in that zone over the years. But it’s been sought for many, many decades, and I think we have something that’s going to be strong and hold up.
The ironic term "safe zone" is straight out of Ankara's talking points, and nobody has been seeking such a buffer zone "for decades" apart from Turkey. Until Ankara's invasion, it was at peace.
Turkey, Syria, and all forms of the Kurds, have been fighting for centuries. We have done them a great service, and we’ve done a great job for all of them. And now we’re getting out. A long time. We were supposed to be there for 30 days; that was almost 10 years ago. So we’re there for 30 days, and now we’re leaving. It was supposed to be a very quick hit and let’s get out. And it was a quick hit, except they stayed for almost 10 years. Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.
This is an especially muddled paragraph. Until the end of World War I, which is to say one single century ago, Syria was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Arabs and Kurds were restive, to be sure, but a ruthless peace was imposed by the the sultan at the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. Today, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes no secret of his desire to resurrect the realms of Ottoman influence if not, indeed, the empire.
But the heart of this part of Trump's remarks is the succession of rhetorical flourishes detached from any discernible reality. Is he talking about the Obama administration's decision in 2014 to deploy a small group of Special Forces—which remained small—to help coordinate the fight against ISIS? If so, that was five years ago, not ten. Or is he thinking about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which he seems to reference later? No matter, the money quote is "blood-stained sand," which is misleading both historically and topographically, but evocative for those many Americans who are tired of what seem endless wars.
I want to thank Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo for leading the American delegation so successfully to Turkey several days ago, along with National Security Advisor O’Brien. I want to thank them very much. The American delegation negotiated the original five-day ceasefire that ended [enabled] Kurdish fighters to safely leave. It just got them to a point where, frankly, they were able. It enabled them to get out, to go and move, really, just a few miles in a slightly different direction. So this enabled them to do so.
It's a good thing that once Trump abandoned the Kurds, an American delegation could arrange for them to be able to leave their homes and their land without being slaughtered. But this hardly seems to merit congratulation. His confusion between “ended” and “enabled” as revealed by the White House brackets suggests he knows this.
Countless lives are now being saved as a result of our negotiation with Turkey—an outcome reached without spilling one drop of American blood. No injuries. Nobody shot, nobody killed.
Only American blood counts, even if Americans open the door for others to die.
I have just spoken to General Mazloum, a wonderful man, the Commander-in-Chief of the SDF Kurds. And he was extremely thankful for what the United States has done. Could not have been more thankful. General Mazloum has assured me that ISIS is under very, very strict lock and key, and the detention facilities are being strongly maintained. There were a few that got out—a small number, relatively speaking—and they’ve been largely recaptured.
Mazloum has very few options, and for the moment has to be grateful to the United States for a pause in the slaughter. He is also publicly grateful to the Russians, and on video no less. As for the terrorist prisoners, the U.S. special presidential envoy for Syria and the fight against ISIS, Jim Jeffrey, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that for the moment nobody knows where the escaped prisoners are.
I’m also sure that he [Mazloum] will be issuing his own statement very shortly. We had a great talk. But we’ve saved the lives of many, many Kurds. He understands that. The war was going to be vicious and probably not very long. And I’m very happy to have been involved in it, as are our Vice President, our Secretary of State, and all of the other people on our team. By getting that ceasefire to stick, we’ve done something that’s very, very special. But by getting the ceasefire after a tremendous amount of really tough war for a very short period of days, that is something very special.
Our troops are safe, and the pain and suffering of the three-day fight that occurred was directly responsible for our ability to make an agreement with Turkey and the Kurds that could never have been made without this short-term outburst.
This is a reference to Trump's infamous playground theory that you let kids beat each other up a bit before you pull them apart, and somehow things work the same way there in northeast Syria. In point of fact, there would have been no fighting at all—just as there had been no fighting previously—had Trump kept the U.S. Special Forces in place and showed such weak resolve.
Should Turkey fail to honor its obligations, including the protection of religious and ethnic minorities—which I truly believe they will do—we reserve the right to re-impose crippling sanctions, including substantially increased tariffs on steel and all other products coming out of Turkey.
There is no reason to be confident Turkey will honor its obligations, and every reason to believe the jihadists it supports will carry out atrocities. Indeed, they've already committed war crimes. But Trump is convinced that the power of the almighty dollar can impose his will on any nation in the world without the need to deploy troops. So far, the good news has been that he has not sought new wars, à la George W. Bush, but the economic pressure he puts on adversaries, including most obviously Iran, tempts them to call his bluff with “other means.” These can include terrorism or thinly veiled military action, as with the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Turkey, for its part, has ignored Trump's sanction threats before, and will certainly do so again.
We are now an economic powerhouse like never before, and, very importantly, like no other. Our economic might is stronger than it’s ever been, and our competitors are not doing very well.
Some economic indicators, like the employment rate, are very good. Some, like the national debt, are mind-blowing: the equivalent of vastly maxed-out credit cards. But no nation or group of nations is yet in a position to challenge the supremacy of the U.S. dollar in international commerce. Unlike the many businesses Trump bankrupted, the United States may truly be too big to fail.
We also expect Turkey to abide by its commitment regarding ISIS. As a backup to the Kurds watching over them, should something happen, Turkey is there to grab them.
Turkey has the second biggest military in NATO, after the United States. But it never fired so much as a slingshot against ISIS, even when the Islamic State's forces rolled up to Turkey's border. Indeed, as ISIS grew it was aided and abetted by the acquiescence of Turkish authorities who gave its foreign fighters easy passage into Syria, and often helped them recover in Turkish hospitals if they were wounded.
Further, we implore European countries to come and take those fighters that the U.S. captured and bring them back to their countries for incarceration and for trial. Until just recently, Europe has been very unresponsive in doing what they should have been doing for a long time. Now is their chance to finally act.
Trump is right about this. Period.
American forces defeated 100 percent of the ISIS caliphate during the last two years. We thank the Syrian Democratic Forces for their sacrifices in this effort. They’ve been terrific. Now Turkey, Syria, and others in the region must work to ensure that ISIS does not regain any territory. It’s their neighborhood; they have to maintain it. They have to take care of it.
Actually, it was the Kurdish-led forces on the ground with American support, mainly from the air, who defeated ISIS. Trump is thanking them the way he might thank servants before stiffing them on their salaries. As for the “others in the region,” the most important are Russia and Iran.
There were some political pundits who responded to Turkey’s offensive in Syria by calling for yet another American military intervention. I don’t think so. But halting the incursion by military force would have required deploying tens of thousands of American troops against Turkey—a NATO Ally and a country the United States has developed a very good relationship with, including President Erdoğan.
This is the great fallacy of Trump's presentation. There was never a question of the U.S. going to war against Turkey. But Erdogan had been deterred for years by the presence of small contingents of U.S. Special Forces in northeast Syria, and that could have continued. He saw Trump's weakness and exploited it. The critical moment probably came at the United Nations General Assembly last month when Erdogan presented a map showing precisely the “safe zone” he now claims, and Trump, perhaps out of arrogance or indecision or both, could not find the time to fit Erdogan into his schedule of one-on-one meetings. In the phone call that followed weeks later, Trump simply surrendered to Erdogan's will.
The same people that I watched and read—giving me and the United States advice—were the people that I have been watching and reading for many years. They are the ones that got us into the Middle East mess but never had the vision or the courage to get us out. They just talk.
“Giving me and the United States advice:” a telling phrase. Here, Trump probably is thinking of the neo-cons who were coaches and cheerleaders for the Iraq invasion of 2003 and have since moved into the “never Trump” camp on the domestic front.
How many Americans must die in the Middle East in the midst of these ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts? After all of the precious blood and treasure America has poured into the deserts of the Middle East, I am committed to pursuing a different course—one that leads to victory for America.
Trump in recent days has ordered an additional contingent of 3,000 troops to sandy Saudi Arabia, which is more than three times the number of American soldiers operating in Syria when Trump decided to start moving them around. There are now more U.S. troops in Iraq (about 6,000) while in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states there are between 45,000 and 65,000 U.S. military personnel.
Through much work, we have done things that everybody said couldn’t be done. Today’s announcement validates our course of action with Turkey that only a couple of weeks ago were scorned, and now people are saying, “Wow. What a great outcome. Congratulations.” It’s too early to me to be congratulated, but we’ve done a good job. We’ve saved a lot of lives.
This fumbled locution is exactly what Trump said, according to the White House transcript. He appears to be trying to stop himself from congratulating himself even more blatantly than what we see here.
Most importantly, we have avoided another costly military intervention that could’ve led to disastrous, far-reaching consequences. Many thousands of people could’ve been killed.
We have avoided a costly military intervention that was never going to happen in the first place if U.S. policy had been clear and firm.
The last administration said, “Assad must go.” They could’ve easily produced that outcome, but they didn’t.
Not without the kind of war Trump is congratulating himself for avoiding.
In fact, they drew a very powerful red line in the sand—you all remember, the red line in the sand—when children were gassed and killed, but then did not honor their commitment as other children died in the same horrible manner. But I did honor my commitments with 58 Tomahawks.
Ironically, the Russians stepped in to help the Obama administration deal with Bashar Assad's chemical arsenal. As a result it was acknowledged for the first time and then almost entirely eliminated. After some residual chemicals were used by Assad early in Trump's term, apparently as a test, his Tomahawk attack was largely a symbolic show of high-powered fireworks—and also coordinated with the Russians.
Eight long years after President Obama’s ill-fated push at regime change, U.S. troops are still on the ground in Syria.
There were no American troops on the ground in Syria until 2014, and since then they could be counted in hundreds, not thousands.
More than half a million people are dead, hundreds of thousands are terribly injured, and millions more Syrians are displaced. It really is a nightmare of misery.
Debate goes on about what Obama might have done to stop the carnage, but Turkey gave at least tacit aid to ISIS, and Russia and Iran openly supported the blood-drenched Assad regime. Now Trump would have us believe they are part of his grand plan for peace.
Across the Middle East, we have seen anguish on a colossal scale. We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars. But after all that money was spent and all of those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded—so many—the Middle East is less safe, less stable, and less secure than before these conflicts began.
The Republican administration of George W. Bush launched the wars Trump is talking about here, and it certainly wanted to win them. It just failed to do so, not least because its planning was based on hubris.
The same people pushing for these wars are often the ones demanding America open its doors to unlimited migration from war-torn regions, importing the terrorism and the threat of terrorism right to our own shores. But not anymore. My administration understands that immigration security is national security.
Very few people who pushed for the Bush wars recommend unlimited immigration today. Trump has a reasonable argument, as far as it goes, when he says immigration security cannot be divorced from national security. But when it comes to the question of terrorism, the greatest threat in the U.S. today is from domestic white supremacists, many of whom find elements of Trump's politics, especially vis a vis dark skinned immigrants, positively inspiring.
As a candidate for President, I made clear that we needed a new approach to American foreign policy, one guided not by ideology, but by experience, history, and a realistic understanding of the world.
This is a bold claim from a man who had no diplomatic or political experience, has no sense of history, and clearly has very little “realistic” understanding of the world. Most of those in his administration who did have such backgrounds have quit, been fired, or, in a couple of cases, become whistle blowers.
We are building up America’s military might like never before, investing $2.5 trillion since my election. But we will not be depleted. We will not happen again. It will not be allowed to happen again, where our military is depleted, fighting in areas of the world where we shouldn’t be.
The objective here would seem to be to deter other major powers, most notably Russia and China, as well as secondary powers North Korea and Iran. But how Trump plans to achieve the kind of quick and absolute victories he talks about is an open question. He frequently invokes apocalyptic images of “fire and fury” for North Korea, “obliteration” of Iran, or killing 10 million Afghans, which suggests he is mulling the use of nuclear weapons. Not a happy thought.
When we commit American troops to battle, we must do so only when a vital national interest is at stake, and when we have a clear objective, a plan for victory, and a path out of conflict. That’s what we have to have. We need a plan of victory. We will only win. Our whole basis has to be the right plan, and then we will only win. Nobody can beat us. Nobody can beat us.
This is the Powell Doctrine, which is fine if you have a clear vision of national interest, what threatens it, and why war would be the best or only response. That is not apparent in this administration.
I want to again thank everyone on the American team who helped achieve the ceasefire in Syria, saved so many lives, along with President Erdoğan of Turkey—a man I’ve gotten to know very well and a man who loves his country. And, in his mind, he’s doing the right thing for his country, and we may be meeting in the very near future.
Trump does admire autocratic nationalists, even if they find his language more than a little condescending.
I also want to thank General Mazloum for his understanding and for his great strength and for his incredible words today to me—but me just as a representative of the United States—because he knows that we saved tens of thousands of Kurds. And we’re not talking in the long term, we’re talking in the short term. We’re talking something that was going on immediately and something, frankly, that was planned for a long time.
Again, Trump is reminding himself in public that it's not all about him, but he just can't help himself. Then he slides into near incomprehensibility, trying to explain that his great victory is just for the short term, or not, but anyway it was planned, not (as everyone believes) the direct result of his capricious gut.
The job of our military is not to police the world. Other nations must step up and do their fair share. That hasn’t taken place. Today’s breakthrough is a critical step in that direction.
In northeast Syria, thank you Russia, thank your Iran, thank you Turkey for taking more than your share.
Thank you all very much, and God bless America. Thank you. Thank you.
11:56 A.M. EDT
There were no questions taken.