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1,500 New U.S. Forces Will Be Deployed to Saudi Arabia; Official: Trump Asks State Dept. to Broker Ceasefire in Northern Syria; Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin Holds Press Conference on Turkey Sanctions. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired October 11, 2019 - 13:30   ET




BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Within the last hour, the Pentagon announced it will be deploying 1,500 extra troops to Saudi Arabia. The move comes, in part, because the U.S. Navy is unable to send a relief aircraft carrier to deter potential Iranian aggression.

The announcement comes days after President Trump pulled U.S. troops back from northeastern Syria, a move that was highly criticized in a bipartisan fashion.

Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, joins me now.

Barbara, how does the acting secretary of defense, Mark Esper, frame the deployment?


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Boris, what we now know is that the U.S., behind the scenes, the U.S. military is taking a number of steps, as you talked about, in Syria to try and protect the U.S. forces there.

They have positioned a number of U.S. forces nearby, not just for Iran, but close to the Syrian border in a separate issue from today's deployment, close to the Syrian border to be ready to evacuate U.S. troops from Syria, if the fighting gets too close to them.

It is not that they expect the Turks to attack U.S. forces directly but, as the Turks advance into Syria in the coming days, there's a good deal of concern U.S. troops there, about 1,000 could get caught in the cross fire, so you have this emergency evacuation plan now in place as U.S. troops are hunkered down.

One of the big concerns continues to be whether Kurdish fighters will be able to maintain their positions at prisons inside Syria that are guarding ISIS detainees. And all of this gets to the very critical point of trying to get this entire situation ratcheted back, if you will.

Right now, the Pentagon has given the Turks a very detailed list of not just where U.S. forces are located but where those critical ISIS detention sites are. They want to make sure that the Turks pull back. But until they do, that there's no possibility of the Turks miscalculating and firing on U.S. troops -- Boris?

SANCHEZ: Yes, we should point out, Barbara, the justification that President Trump gave for removing those troops is that he wanted to bring troops home. Now he's deploying some 1,500 to Saudi Arabia.

Barbara Starr, thank you so much, reporting from the Pentagon.

STARR: Sure.

SANCHEZ: After a week of mixed messages about Turkey's military operation in northern Syria, one senior State Department official is telling CNN the president has asked the State Department to try to broker a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdish-led fighters.

Unfortunately, the damage has been done, especially in the towns on the border of Turkey and Syria.

CNN military and diplomatic analyst, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, breaks down the consequences of President Trump's decision.


REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: So let's take a look first at the humanitarian crisis. That is the most pressing issue right now. Some 15 aid agencies are predicting a major humanitarian crisis. There's little indication that the Turks or the Americans have a plan for how to deal with this.

You have thousands of people being displaced by fighting in northeast Syria. Our CNN reporting is showing disturbing images of people having to leave their homes and businesses. There's nowhere to go. They can't go to refugee camps across the border with Turkey, because those camps, Erdogan wants to empty. And there's 500,000 Syrians living just along that border.

We're going to continue to see this flow of refugees. And we're also going to continue to see, unfortunately, civilian casualties and collateral damage to civilian infrastructure in the region with very little indication that there's any international plan to come in and provide aid and sustain that aid over what could be a months-long process here.

The next big concern is of course the fight against ISIS. Our Syrian Democratic forces, who have been partnering with the United States military and going after ISIS inside Syria, have now indicated that they are going to suspend all operations against ISIS.

Another factor here is this camp down at Al Hahl (ph), near the Iraqi border, where thousands of ISIS fights and their families are being held. They are still there. There's no guarantees that the forces are going to continue to want to do that while their compadres are hit hard. There's another opportunity for ISIS to resurge, to gain a stronger

foothold, to recruit, to train, to maybe even resource itself for further operations inside and outside the region. That's a very real concern. The counter ISIS fight is going to be put in some jeopardy here.

Next, of course, is U.S. leadership, and credibility in the region. We have already damaged that credibility with our Syrian Democratic Forces allies. I don't think they're going to want to come to our assistance in the future anytime soon.

But we're also strange our relations with Turkey, a major NATO ally, and we are giving Russia and Iran much more flexibility inside Syria now. This is a gift to both of these countries that want a foothold in Syria for their own purposes. Russia so that they can have a presence in the Middle East, Iran so they can build a bridge to Lebanon to provide fighters there against Israel.

And of course, Israel is another factor here. I can imagine that they are none too happy that we have stepped back here because we are making it easier for Iran. And Iran is making it harder on Israel.

So there's a lot of regional tensions here that we have to look at.

And finally, we have heard that the State Department is interested in brokering a ceasefire, or they are going to explore opportunities for a ceasefire between the Turks and Kurds.


This is a good step. This is a good idea. We want the fighting to stop. It's going to be difficult to get there.

First of all, we have tried to mediate between these two groups before. The enmity is bitter and historic and difficult to overcome.

Number two, you have to have incentives for both sides to want to stop fighting. There's no indication they want to step away from this. The operation is two days old.

Lately, is, again, back to our credibility, especially with the Kurds. It's unlikely they're going to want to accept an American mediation role when we have proven we're not willing to stand behind them and have their back and prove to be a reliable ally.

So while a ceasefire certainly would be a good thing for everybody, including all of those thousands and thousands of civilians, it's going to be a long row for the United States to hoe.

Back to you, Boris.


SANCHEZ: Rear Admiral John Kirby, thank you for that.

We are following a big loss for President Trump today in a federal appeals court, as he fails to stop a House effort to obtain years of his tax returns. That story coming up.



SANCHEZ: We're following some breaking news right now. The Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin expected to take the podium at the White House briefing room.

We'll go straight to him.

STEVE MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: -- giving the Treasury Department, in consultation with himself and Secretary Pompeo, very significant new sanctions authorities that can be targeted at any person associated with the government of Turkey, any portion of the government. This will be both primary sanctions and secondary sanctions that will be applicable.

The president is concerned about the ongoing military offensive, and potential targeting of civilians, civilian infrastructure, ethnic or religious minorities.

And also the president wants to make very clear it is imperative that Turkey not allow even a single ISIS fighter to escape.

Again, I want to emphasize, at this point, we are not activating the sanctions, but as the president has said, he will provide very significant authorities based upon the continuing efforts.

So he will be signing this. They will be active. We will be working in consultation with the Department of Defense and Department of State to monitoring this very quickly.

We are putting financial institutions on notice that they should be careful, and that there could be sanctions.

Again, there are no sanctions at this time, but this will be the broadest executive authorities delegated to us.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When you spoke with the president, was there any concern about the actions he took that led to this and can you tell us when would you put in sanctions, what would it take for you to actually activate them?

MNUCHIN: No, I don't think he thinks his actions are what led to this. It is a complicated situation. It's a situation that we're all concerned about. And the humanitarian situation.

And there are very clear discussions that will be going on between the Department of Defense and the State Department. I just got off the phone with the finance minister, and we will be communicating specifics that we're not going to telegraph.

(CROSSTALK) UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Can you give us an update on the China trade negotiations?

MNUCHIN: I didn't think anybody would be asking me about that.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is it possible we get to the end of the day today with no new specific deals agreed to or are we definitely going to see --


MNUCHIN: I wanted to make sure everybody knew in advance I wasn't talking about China because I didn't want to think I was calling a specific China meeting.

We have had a productive two days of discussions, Ambassador Lighthizer with myself and others.

We'll be meeting with the vice premier shortly. We'll be updating the president on those. He'll then be meeting the vice premier.

I wouldn't be surprised if he decided to invite a few of you in. I'm not going to make any other comments in advance of us meeting with the president.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The stock market is very optimistic about what it sees at the U.S. office. Are they right to be optimistic?

MNUCHIN: The stock market is always right.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is there reason for optimism?

MNUCHIN: Again, I'm not going to make any more comments. I have said we have had a productive two days of discussions. We'll be making more announcements after we meet with the president.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So far, Turkey has not been dissuaded by anything this administration has done or the president has said. What makes you confident that the announcement that you just made is going to change Turkey's --


MNUCHIN: I don't agree with your premise. I'm not going to comment on specific confidential discussions that have been going on, on different levels. So I don't think that's a good premise.

But again, these are very powerful sanctions. We hope we don't have to use them. But we can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How does the threat of these sanctions help these U.S. allies who say they have been abandoned?

MNUCHIN: Again, it's a complicated military discussion going on. There are discussions. I think the president has had very specific discussion. As I said, the Department of Defense. We have expectations. This is a way of making sure that we protect the humanitarian issues and the other people on the ground.




UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: As far as you know, has any plans specifically changed about President Erdogan still visiting the White House or --


MNUCHIN: I'm not aware of anything that's changed. But gain, I'm not confirming that. I just haven't heard anything one way or the other.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, what kind of consultations are you having with lawmakers like Lindsey Graham, Senator Van Hollen, who have been very critical of the pullout of troops in Syria?

MNUCHIN: Secretary Pompeo has been speaking to them daily. I've been speaking to the secretary multiple times a day. I think the message to Congress is, I know people are contemplating sanctions. We're on top of sanctions. The president will use them when necessary.


MNUCHIN: Thank you, everybody.


SANCHEZ: That was the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at the podium at the White House press briefing room announcing that the president is not activating sanctions on Turkey but authorizing several state officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others, to use sanctions against Turkey's aggression, entering this safe zone in Syria, targeting the YPG, the Kurds in that region, and replacing tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of civilians.

I believe we have Pamala Brown at the North Lawn of the White House.

Pamela, isn't this is slap on the wrist considering that President Trump opened up the Kurds to this attack by moving U.S. troops out of that area?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You heard Secretary Mnuchin saying, no, the president doesn't his actions led to this. And he didn't specify, Boris, what it could take necessarily for the sanctions to actually be put in action.

He made clear today the president is following through on what he had said initially, that he was considering sanctions. They said they are getting those ready to go. But they're not actually activating the use of those sanctions.

They said this was, of course, in response to the military offensive by Turkey that we have seen over the last several days, where not only the Kurds have been targeted but civilians as well.

So Steve Mnuchin there said this is really a humanitarian crisis that is going on there.

But you're right. This happened after the president had pulled out U.S. troops in that area, which angered a lot of his allies, including Lindsey Graham, to name one, that even happened.

Several days after the Turkey military offensive, Steve Mnuchin announcing these sanctions, they're getting them ready to go.

But again, not specifying what it will take, what threshold needs to be crossed to actually put those sanctions on Turkey. He did say, if they wanted to, they could hurt Turkey's economy but hope they don't have to do that.

SANCHEZ: Pamela Brown, stand by.

I want to turn our Arwa Damon, on the border of Syria and Turkey as we speak.

Arwa, I hope you've been able to hear the news coming from the White House. The United States not activating sanctions against Turkey but authorizing key figures in the administration to enact those sanctions if -- it's unclear at this point what the line is. The president hasn't been specific what line Turkey had to cross for him to get involved in this.

How is all of this, this mess the United States created, being received on the ground?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, a couple of things, I think, are worth pointing out and looking back and on previous statements that had been made and Turkey's reaction to them has been.

First of all, Turkey is not backing down, no matter what it's being threatened with. Trump has already said that he would destroy Turkey economically if Turkey crossed an undetermined red line -- we don't know exactly what that is in this offensive -- against the Kurds, the Kurds in northern Syria.

And Turkey, in response to criticism that it has been getting from Europe, has in turn threatened to unleash 3.6 Syrian refugees on to Europe basically meaning that Turkey would once again open the gates to the refugee route to Europe from here.

Also we've heard even Russia, President Putin saying he was concerned that this Turkish offensive would allow ISIS to -- as we've heard from others as well -- regroup and launch a number of counterattacks and reverse the gains that have been made.

Turkey's point in all of this has been very simple and very straightforward. From Turkey's perspective, this is how they see it and this is what their response is. They say we have waited. We have been patient. From our perspective, the YPG is a terrorist organization. They are one and the same as the PKK. We no longer have patience, we are going to go it alone. And we warned you about this before.


SANCHEZ: Arwa Damon, reporting from the Turkey/Syria border. Stay safe out there. Thank you for that.

We've following all sorts of breaking news. Hope you stay with us. More news after the break.