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Pompeo defends Donald Trump's Twitter threat to Turkey over Kurds in Syria

U.S. withdrawal from Syria begins

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that President Donald Trump's threat to devastate NATO ally Turkey's economy if it attacks U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria underscores America's commitment to its partners.

Pompeo said he had yet to speak with Turkish officials or Mr. Trump about the president's Sunday afternoon threat, and that he assumed the president was referring to the imposition of sanctions should Turkey take military action against the Kurds in Syria, vital U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.

On Sunday, Trump tweeted that the U.S. would "attack again from existing nearby base if it (ISIS) reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds."

Mr. Trump's decision to leave Syria, which he initially said would be rapid but later slowed down, shocked U.S. allies and angered the Syrian Kurds. A U.S. official told CBS News last week it was expected to take between 90 and 120 days.

Pompeo said the U.S. message on the Kurds had been straightforward and unchanged since Mr. Trump made the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria last month.

"The administration has been very consistent with respect to our requirement that the Turks not go after the Kurds in ways that are inappropriate," Pompeo said. "If they are terrorists, we're all about taking down extremists wherever we find them. I think the president's comments this morning are consistent with that."

On Sunday, CBS News "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan asked Pompeo directly whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had agreed not to attack America's allies in Syria. 

"Yeah, look when President Erdogan and President Trump spoke, they talked about this issue. The Turks have made clear that they understand that there are folks down in Syria that have their rights," Pompeo told Brennan. "We also want to make sure that those in Syria aren't attacking -- terrorists aren't attacking Turkey from Syria. We're fully engaged. Ambassador Jeffrey is fully engaged in conversations with the Turks as well as with the SDF (Kurdish-led fighters) in Syria to make sure that we accomplish all of those missions. We can -- we can do each of those things."

Pompeo says Trump is not a threat to national security

Asked specifically about what Mr. Trump meant by devastating Turkey's economy if the country does attack the Kurds, Pompeo said Monday: "We apply sanctions in many places around the world. I assume he's speaking about those kinds of things but you would have to ask him."

Turkey lashes out over tweeted threat

Mr. Trump's tweet drew a sharp response from Ankara and the Turkish lira lost some 0.84 percent of its value against the dollar on Monday following the U.S. president's threat.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman responded to Mr. Trump on Twitter by saying that Turkey "fights against terrorists, not Kurds" as a people. "Terrorists can't be your partners & allies," the spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said.

He said in Ankara's view there is "no difference" between the Kurdish YPG militia, which has led the U.S.-backed opposition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and ISIS, and that Turkey would "continue to fight against them all."

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also rebuked Mr. Trump, saying that strategic partners do not speak to each other through social media and stressing that Turkey is "not afraid of any threat. You cannot achieve anything with economic threats."

"We would do whatever is necessary to eliminate threat to our security," Cavusoglu added.

Mutual interest in Syria buffer zone

Pompeo said Mr. Trump's call for a 20-mile safe zone between Turkish forces and the Kurds was consistent with what the U.S. is trying to achieve in talks with the Turks. But, he said it remained a work in progress.

"We want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate and ISIS have security and also that terrorists ... (in) Syria aren't able to attack Turkey, those are our twin aims," he told reporters in Riyadh after talks with Saudi officials.

"If we can get a space, call it a buffer zone ... if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region," Pompeo added.

For his part, Cavusoglu welcomed Mr. Trump's proposal for a 20-mile safe zone, saying Turkey had long advocated such a zone in northern Syria.

"They bandied this idea after they saw Turkey's determination," Cavusoglu said during a news conference. "We are not against it."