WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump said Wednesday that U.S. troops are "largely out" of a region of Syria where Turkish forces are attacking the Kurdish fighters who were America's allies in fighting the Islamic State group.
However, a U.S. official familiar with planning for the withdrawal of the approximately 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria said that while the soldiers are consolidating onto two main bases, they have not yet begun flying out of Syria in significant numbers. Military equipment is being gathered and flown out, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the withdrawal, which poses big security risks.
Trump downplayed the crisis that followed his decision to pull out of Syria, which critics say amounted to giving Turkey a green light to invade Syria's northeast, where it has been attacking Kurdish fighters whom Turkey views as terrorists.
"It's not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like you to believe," Trump said, adding that he's more than willing to let adversaries fight it out in that area of the Middle East.
"They've got a lot of sand over there," he said. "So there's a lot of sand that they can play with."
As for the Kurds, whom Trump has been criticized for abandoning, he said, "Syria's friendly with the Kurds. The Kurds are very well protected. Plus, they know how to fight. And, by the way, they're no angels."
In the meantime, he said, "Our soldiers are not in harm's way, as they shouldn't be."He answered reporters' questions as he met at the White House with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters allied with the United States after Trump pulled troops from the region earlier this month. His decision was strongly condemned in the U.S. — including by usual Republican allies in Congress — and around the world as contributing to regional instability and the abandonment of an ally.
He noted that Syria was getting "some help with Russia and that's fine."
"If Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that's really up to them," he said. "It's not our border. We shouldn't be losing lives over it."
Trump imposed new sanctions on Turkey this week in an attempt to force President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to end his assault. Trump is also sending a delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence to Turkey to meet with Erdogan in an attempt to help negotiate a cease-fire.
Trump said the U.S. shouldn't be involved in "endless wars" in the Middle East and "it's time for us to come home."
The president said that if Syria wants to fight over land that doesn't belong to the U.S., "that's up to them and Turkey."
Even as Trump defended his removal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, he praised his decision to send more troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend against Iran.
Trump said the U.S. is sending missiles and "great power" to the Saudis, and "they're paying for that."