US sends mixed signals on Turkish offensive in Syria

Senator Graham warns he will introduce sanctions measure against Turkey if its forces invade Syria, as President Trump says US going into Middle East was 'worst decision ever'

WASHINGTON - Senior US Republican senator Lindsey Graham on Tuesday urgently warned Turkey against sending troops into northern Syria, in the latest of a series of mixed signals from the Trump administration.

Turkey said it would shortly begin an offensive after Donald Trump announced on Sunday he was pulling back US troops who had served as a buffer preventing the long-planned attack on Kurdish forces.

But Trump has blown hot and cold since his surprise announcement, also insisting the United States had not abandoned its Kurdish allies by pulling out of the area.

The US president has faced a bipartisan storm of criticism since the announcement that Washington was pulling back 50 to 100 "special operators" from Syria's northern frontier.

Trump said Wednesday the US military becoming involved in the Middle East was the "worst decision ever made" and that he was ensuring the safe return of American troops. He also condemned the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as having been based on a "false & now disproven premise".

The United States is estimated to have between 60,000 and 80,000 troops across the area covered by US Central Command, which includes Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, Kurdish forces were crucial in the US-backed campaign to defeat the Islamic State group. But one group of fighters allied to the US, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) are viewed as "terrorists" by Turkey for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has waged a bloody insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.

Graham, a close ally of Trump who is among many political figures decrying the controversial president's latest decision, on Tuesday addressed a tweet to the Turkish government saying, "You do NOT have a green light to enter into northern Syria.

"There is massive bipartisan opposition in Congress, which you should see as a red line you should not cross."

Turkey said on Tuesday that it would begin its long-threatened offensive "soon," after Trump gave what was widely seen as a green light at the weekend with the pullback of US troops.

But after appearing to give the go-ahead to the Turkish offensive, Trump then threatened to "obliterate" the country's economy if it went too far. 

The Turkish government on Tuesday sent more armored vehicles to the border with Syria.

Graham on Monday had said he would introduce a sanctions measure against Turkey if its forces invade Syria and would call for its suspension from NATO if they attack Kurdish forces.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Iraqi Kurdish leaders he met earlier this week had voiced deep concern about the mixed signals from Trump.

"They are extremely alarmed that such a lightweight treatment of this extremely delicate subject could ignite the entire region," Lavrov said.

He also accused the United States of violating Syria’s territorial integrity and seeking to create “quasi-states” in northern Syria by resettling Kurdish people there against the wishes of Arab tribes living on those territories.

“This is a very dangerous game,” Lavrov said.