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As Turkey and Russia expand reach within Syria, U.S. scrambles to reassure allies

President Trump says he’s lifting sanctions on Turkey, after Turkey and Russia extended a cease-fire while Syrian Kurds evacuate the Syrian border region. Trump credited U.S. military withdrawal from northeast Syria for delivering “a much more peaceful and stable area,” though that move prompted bipartisan criticism that Trump had abandoned Kurdish partners. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our other lead story tonight: President Trump defends his decision to cede ground in Northeastern Syria.

    He said today that he's lifting sanctions on Turkey, after the Turks and Russia extended a cease-fire, while Syrian Kurds evacuate the Syrian border region.

    The president said the credit goes to his decision to pull U.S. troops from the area.

  • President Donald Trump:

    By the moves that we have made, we are achieving a much more peaceful and stable area between Turkey and Syria, including a 20-mile-wide safe zone. Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president has faced bipartisan criticism that the U.S. pullout abandoned Kurdish partners and green-lighted a Turkish military offensive.

    For more on his statement today, we turn now to our foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin.

    So, Nick, you have been following this all day long.

    Where does what has happened leave everything right now on the ground in Northern Syria?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, President Trump is accurate that the region right now is relatively quiet. But Kurdish partners of the U.S. and bipartisan members of Congress ask, at what cost?

    Here's what we saw today across Northern Syria, Russian military police deploying to cities along the Syrian-Turkish border that the U.S. and those Kurdish partners freed from ISIS, Syrian regime forces going into cities that they haven't been in along the same border in more than five years, and Turkey bragging that they made deals with both the U.S. and Russia, and that their Kurdish enemies, they call them, are going to evacuate from a much larger area than the U.S. agreed.

    So let's look at that area that the U.S. agreed with Turkey on. That is the U.S.-Turkey buffer zone. It's 75-miles-wide, agreed upon a couple weeks ago in Ankara. And let's look at what — the Turkey-Russia buffer zone, more than 300-miles-wide.

    Turkey promised to the U.S. it wouldn't go beyond what the U.S. negotiated, but, obviously, that buffer zone is much bigger, Turkey today saying that they would kill any — kill any Syrian Kurdish fighters inside that new buffer zone. And Russia said that would be OK with them.

    So that means the Turkey is abrogating the deal with the U.S. Now, I asked the senior administration official, hey, wait a minute, you promised to impose sanctions on Turkey if they abrogated the deal. Why has the president lifted those sanctions today?

    Basically, the official shrugged. He said that Kurdish fighters would have to leave that entire area and said that's an issue for the Russians and Syrians, who control the ground, to deal with the Turks, not for the U.S.

    And efforts as well in Congress, quickly, to penalize the Turks for what U.S. officials say might be war crimes, those seem to be dying as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were telling us, Nick, this. You also were following efforts by the Trump administration to reassure, in the face of all this, American allies in the region.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, this is interesting.

    So we have seen military officials in the last few days and State Department officials trying to reassure allies and partners that, as critics put it, that the president abandoned Syrian Kurds, so they're trying to reassure that, no, you guys are not going to be abandoned.

    So, we heard from the top military official in the Middle East today, General McKenzie. He was speaking in Washington. He said that U.S. strategic strength has never rested solely on U.S. might, but, rather, the partnerships and alliances that we have.

    And we saw State Department officials in the last few days go to Iraq. They went to the Kurdistan regional government. And you can see the map there. On the right is the Kurdistan regional government. And on the left is the Kurdish territory in Syria. So we're talking about U.S. officials going to Iraq and visiting Iraqi Kurds.

    And a senior State Department official said the trip was to reassure our Kurdish friends in Iraq that we remain committed to them and how important they are to us.

    Judy, this official wouldn't say whether they were reassured by that reassurance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, they're understandably asking questions after all this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Absolutely. Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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