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Fact check: Trump parrots talking points from Putin, Erdogan on Syria

In defending the recent withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, President Donald Trump has continued to cite reasons that are not only factually dubious but which also mirror talking points issued by Turkey and Russia, contradicting US officials and the facts on the ground.

On Friday, Trump re-tweeted a post from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, literally echoing his comments about the need to “defeat terrorism,” even though Erdogan has previously referred to America’s Kurdish allies as terrorists.

Here are three more stark examples of Trump repeating talking points from Turkey and Russia:

Kurds releasing ISIS prisoners on purpose

On Sunday, Erdogan claimed that reports of ISIS prisoners and their families escaping from Kurdish-controlled camps were “disinformation,” designed to “provoke the US and Europe” and more recently stated the Syrian Kurds “deliberately” allowed these escapes.

Here are three stark examples:

Kurds releasing ISIS prisoners on purpose

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that reports of ISIS prisoners and their families escaping from Kurdish-controlled camps were “disinformation,” designed to “provoke the US and Europe” and more recently stated the Syrian Kurds “deliberately” allowed these escapes.

On Monday, Trump parroted this theory, tweeting that the “Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved.” On Wednesday, Trump repeated this claim, suggesting that the Kurds were “probably” letting ISIS captives out of prison. “Probably the Kurds let (ISIS prisoners) go to make a little bit stronger political impact,” he told reporters.

Facts First: Contrary to Trump and Erdogan’s allegation, US officials have told CNN there are no indications that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have intentionally released any of the 10,000-plus ISIS prisoners they guard.

The Kurdish-led military force SDF, which recently joined with the Syrian government as Turkey continues its military offensive in northern Syria, controls some of the camps and prisons holding ISIS prisoners and those displaced by the war against ISIS.

In light of the ceasefire announced Thursday, it’s unclear whether Turkey will take control of some of these Kurdish-guarded compounds. In a statement on Friday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he had recently spoken with the Turkish minister of defense to remind him of the full terms of the agreement. “I also reminded him of Turkey’s responsibility for maintaining security of the ISIS detainees located in the affected areas,” Esper said.

A senior US defense official told CNN that Trump “falsely claiming that the SDF Kurds are letting ISIS prisoners out of prison is wrong because they are the people that defeated ISIS, wrong because they are currently risking their lives to defend our forces and wrong because they are fighting a force that intends to eliminate their people because we green lighted their operation.”

Due to the attack by Turkish forces on the SDF in northern Syria, the Kurdish-led militia has had to remove troops guarding prisons and camps holding ISIS fighters and those displaced by the fight against ISIS.

“We already did not have professional jails or professional prisons to keep those prisoners in,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said last week. “The Turkish invasion to our region is going to leave a huge space, because we are forced to pull out some of our troops from the prisons and from the [displaced people] camps to the border to protect our people.”

Turkish warplanes and artillery have also repeatedly struck detention camps, allowing the escape of several ISIS prisoners and 785 people connected to ISIS fighters, according to Kurdish authorities.

In a comment to Foreign Policy, the political wing of the SDF disputed Trump’s claim, saying the group did not “release any prisoners and will never do that.”

Russia fighting ISIS

On Wednesday, Trump touted the role Russia has played in the fight against ISIS. He equated Russia and the United States as countries that see eye-to-eye when it comes to ISIS.

“Russia hates ISIS,” Trump said. “Russia hates ISIS as much as the United States does.”

He added, “Russia had a plane blown up by ISIS. Russia wants nothing to do with ISIS. Russia’s tough, they can kill ISIS just as well, and they happen to be in their neighborhood.”

Facts First: Trump’s comments don’t reflect the reality on the ground in Syria, and by equating the US and Russia, he is echoing a key talking point of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While claiming to fight ISIS and other terrorists, the Russian military has overwhelmingly targeted Assad’s opponents. This pales in comparison to American military efforts against ISIS.

The Russian military intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015 and have hammered anti-Assad rebels with airstrikes, even sometimes targeting militias that received training or weapons from the US.

Occasionally, Russia has been involved in clashes against ISIS. And it’s true that Putin has real concerns about jihadists taking the fight to Russia, which has a history with jihadist insurgency in its Northern Caucasus region. As Trump noted, ISIS claimed a deadly bombing of a Russian jetliner in 2015.

But Russia’s military operations in Syria are not focused on ISIS. After Russia entered the civil war, the US said that more than 90% of Russian airstrikes weren’t targeting ISIS or other terrorist groups. Instead, the airstrikes were aimed at rebels who want to topple the Assad government.

In comparison, the US military presence in Syria is oriented around fighting ISIS. The US-led coalition has launched thousands of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The Pentagon provided training and weapons to Syrian Kurdish fighters that engaged ISIS directly on the ground. Around 1,000 American service members were in northern Syria to help the Kurds and keep ISIS at bay.

Trump made similar comments about Russia last December when he decided to begin withdrawing US troops from Syria. At that time, Putin praised Trump’s decision and embraced his comments, saying, “As for defeating ISIS, I do generally agree with the President of the United States. We’ve achieved some major advances when it comes to defeating the terrorists.”

While Trump and Putin agree, senior US military officials saw things differently. Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversaw all US troops in the Middle East, testified on Capitol Hill last year that Russia was undermining — not helping — the fight against ISIS led by the US and the Syrian Kurds.

“Despite the key role that our partners on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the coalition have played in dealing defeat to ISIS, Russia has placed this progress at risk with their activities, which are not focused on defeating ISIS but rather on preserving their own influence and control over the outcome of the situation,” Votel said at a Hill hearing in February 2018.

Kurdish group in Turkey more of a threat than ISIS

Trump also told reporters Wednesday the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group of Kurds in Turkey, is likely a larger terrorist threat than ISIS.

“Now, the PKK, which is a part of the Kurds, as you know,” Trump said, “is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS.”

This mimics Erdogan’s repeated attacks on the PKK. According to Erdogan, the purpose of the northern Syria invasion is to “neutralize terror threats against Turkey” including the PKK, SDF, and ISIS. But Turkey likely sees the PKK as a larger and more direct threat to the country — even attacking PKK forces who left Turkey to fight ISIS.

Facts First: The PKK is also designated as a terrorist organization by the US but the separatist group is focused primarily on Kurdish independence in Turkey and is not considered a global threat like ISIS.

Bryan Gibson, an expert on Kurdistan and assistant professor of history at Hawaii Pacific University says Trump’s claim that PKK is a larger terror threat than ISIS is false

“The PKK is a domestic Turkish terrorist organization that’s focused exclusively on its struggle for Kurdish independence from Turkey,” Gibson said. “It has never posed a threat to the US nor has it specifically targeted Americans … ISIS is a global terrorist organization, which has specifically targeted Americans in terrorist attacks, fought a war with the US, and continues to pose a clear and present danger to Americans at home and abroad.”

As noted by The New York Times, a report from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland notes that in 2018 — the year after ISIS had lost over 95% of its territory — the PKK launched 122 attacks and 136 deaths whereas ISIS was responsible for 735 terrorist attacks and 2,221 deaths

Furthermore, Syrian Kurds (those in the SDF) have been supported by the US and were a primary force in the war against ISIS. While the PKK does have ties to those Kurds in the SDF, it is incorrect to group them together. “The SDF does have some PKK-affiliated groups within it, but it is definitely not the same as the PKK,” said Cedric Leighton, a CNN military analyst. “To say that these groups are the same is a gross oversimplification.”

This story has been updated to include Trump retweeting Erdogan on Friday

CNN