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Trump administration imposes sanctions on Turkey, as critics slam decision to withdraw U.S. troops

John Fritze, David Jackson and Courtney Subramanian, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Facing blowback for his decision to allow Turkey's invasion against Kurdish fighters in Syria, President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Ankara as his administration called for an "immediate" ceasefire in the fragile region.

"Punishing sanctions have been placed on Turkey," Vice President Mike Pence told reporters during a surprise gathering at the White House. "The sanctions that are imposed today are a beginning."

The White House took the steps as Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region has been slammed by lawmakers of both parties as well as American allies in the region. Hours earlier, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned of a "strategic calamity" in Syria. 

Pence said Trump pressed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in phone call Monday. Trump has also ordered Pence and Trump's top national security aide Robert O’Brien to lead a delegation to Turkey. A senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail internal discussions said Trump believes there's "at least a chance of getting to a ceasefire" but added that he reached that conclusion only hours before announcing the sanctions.

"Indiscriminate targeting of civilians, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and targeting of ethnic or religious minorities is unacceptable," Trump said in a lengthy statement. "Additionally, the return of refugees must be conducted in a safe, voluntary, and dignified manner."

Trump had repeatedly threatened to impose the sanctions. Mnuchin on Friday said that the U.S. could "shut down the Turkish economy" if his administration decides that Erdogan crosses a line the White House has declined to define. Mnuchin said three senior Turkish officials – the ministers of defense, interior and energy – and two Turkish ministries were designated for the sanctions authorized by Trump's executive order.    

Trump said steel tariffs imposed on Turkey would increase to 50% from 25% and said his administration would stop talks on a proposed $100 billion trade deal. The president has so far declined to provide a specific answer to questions about what would trigger U.S. sanctions. 

"We do a lot of trade with Turkey," Trump told reporters on Friday. "But we don’t want them killing a lot of people." Critics say the president's decision has set the stage for a humanitarian crisis in northern Syria and power vacuum that Russia, Iran and other strategic foes of the U.S. will attempt to fill.   

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Critics have put the blame squarely on Trump, saying he all but green-lighted the invasion during a phone call with Erodgan a week ago Sunday. They said U.S. troops had stabilized the area, and their withdrawal made conflict more likely.

“I am gravely concerned by recent events in Syria and by our nation’s apparent response thus far," McConnell said. 

The sanctions and talk of a ceasefire appeared to satisfy Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican and Trump ally who has nevertheless been critical of the president's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region. 

Graham said in a statement that the president asked him to sit in on several calls about the conflict on Monday. 

"The president’s team has a plan and I intend to support them as strongly as possible, and to give them reasonable time and space to achieve our mutual goals," Graham said.

Speaking in a television interview Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Trump had ordered a "deliberate withdrawal" of U.S. forces from northern Syria, an even more comprehensive withdrawal than had been previously ordered. 

In his statement, Trump said that troops withdrawing from Syria will "now redeploy and remain in the region" to monitor the situation and prevent a resurgence of ISIS. White House officials had previously said that the troops pulled back from the line of fire would remain in the region. 

Contributing: Nicholas Wu

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump threatens 'punishing' sanctions on Turkey for Syria invasion