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Fact check: Cutting through the misinformation on Syria, Turkey and the Kurds

Since the White House announced the withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria on October 6, President Donald Trump’s attempts to control the narrative have been rife with misinformation and political spin.

He insinuated the Kurds would be fine without continued US support because the US had already given them “massive” amounts of money and weapons. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told CNN that at least five Kurdish fighters have been killed as a result of Turkish attacks, while the UN estimates that more than 160,000 people have been displaced by the Turkish offensive.

Trump threatened to “destroy” Turkey’s economy through sanctions. Then shortly after implementing them, he rolled back the most punitive measures.

On October 17, Trump announced a ceasefire had been agreed to, after falsely denying claims that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made days earlier that he wouldn’t declare a ceasefire.

Turkey referred to the deal as a “pause,” and there are questions as to whether the terms have held amid reports on Friday of shelling and artillery fire.

Wading through the flood of misinformation surrounding this ongoing conflict can be confusing, so we’re here to parse out the facts from the fiction.

Origin of the conflict

Trump has framed this conflict as both having started under Obama and one that’s hundreds of years old.

Facts First: While Trump can argue that Obama’s Syria policy led to the current state of affairs, Obama obviously did not “start” the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds or the conflict between Turkey and the PKK in particular. According to experts, the origins of the conflict between the Kurds and Turkey can be traced to shortly after the First World War.

Full fact check here.

Aid to the Kurds

Trump said on several occasions that the US has given “massive” assistance to the Kurds, implying that that although the Kurds were allies in the fight against ISIS, they no longer needed further aid.

Facts First: Though the definition of “massive” is nonspecific, the annual amount the US has given to the Kurds is far less than the billions of dollars the Pentagon spends on foreign military aid to other countries.

Full fact check here.

Help from the Kurds

As part of his defense for removing troops from northern Syria, Trump suggested that the Kurds have not come to the aid of the US in previous conflicts, specifically citing the fact that the Kurds did not join the US during the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Facts First: They couldn’t. They had no military, no government, no means of transport.

Full fact check here.

The Kurds and ISIS prisoners

After Turkish forces launched their military offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria, President Donald Trump echoed talking points from Erdogan, suggesting that Kurdish forces guarding many of the prisoners might be purposely allowing ISIS detainees to escape camps and prisons.

Facts First: US officials told CNN there is no evidence that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have intentionally released any of the 10,000-plus ISIS prisoners they guard and believe it would be against their interests to do so given the direct threat the terrorist group poses to Kurdish-held areas in Syria.

Full fact check here.

US soldiers in Syria

Trump claimed on October 10 that the US had “no soldiers in Syria.”

Facts First: There were still 1,000 US soldiers in Syria at the time, though Trump had withdrawn a small number from the part of northern Syria where Turkey planned to attack.

Full fact check here.

The Kurds and “a different part of Syria”

Trump has at least twice appeared to refer to a 2017 dispute between the Kurds and Iraq as having taken place in a “different part of Syria.”

Facts First: The dispute was over the contested city of Kirkuk, which is in Iraq, not Syria.

Full fact check here.

Trump’s Turkey deal vs. previous administrations

The day a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds was announced, Trump claimed people had tried to make that deal with Turkey for 10 years but were not able to. Then he said it had been 15 years or more.

Facts First: The Syrian Civil War is less than 10 years old, Trump made a narrow deal specifically related to Turkey’s offensive this month, and no previous president had sought to offer Turkey such concessionary terms.

Full fact check here.

The Turkish economy

In a tweet and in a letter sent to Erdogan, Trump claimed the US could destroy Turkey’s economy — as he claimed his administration had done “so” in the past to pressure the country for the return of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

Facts First: Experts say the US certainly has the capability to cause some damage given the fragility of Turkey’s economy.

Full fact check here.

The PKK and ISIS

Trump told reporters the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group of Kurds in Turkey, is likely a larger terrorist threat than ISIS, mimicking Erdogan’s rhetoric about the PKK.

Facts First: Though the PKK is also designated as a terrorist organization by the US, experts do not consider the separatist group to be a global threat on the level of ISIS.

Full fact check here.

Russia and ISIS

On several occasions, Trump has described Russia and the US as equal partners in the fight against ISIS. He made this argument in October while defending his Syria policy, saying, “Russia hates ISIS as much as the United States does.”

Facts First: Trump’s comments don’t reflect the reality on the ground in Syria. Top US generals have said that Russia’s actions have helped, not hurt, ISIS. Also, by equating the US and Russia, Trump is rejecting the assessment of US generals and echoing a favorite talking point of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Full fact check here.

This post will be updated as events unfold.

CNN