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Turkish rebuke of Bolton highlights troubled effort to sell U.S. plan for exit from Syria

On Jan. 8, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rebuked National Security adviser John Bolton after he called for the protection of Kurdish fighters in Syria. (Video: AP)

ISTANBUL — White House national security adviser John Bolton traveled to Turkey this week to talk with Turkish officials about working together on President Trump’s plan to quickly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Instead, he got an earful.  

Turkish President Recep Tay­yip Erdogan, who declined to meet with Bolton, scolded him on live television Tuesday, describing as “a serious mistake” remarks Bolton made conditioning the American exit plan on protection of U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the Kurdish forces terrorists and has vowed to attack them in northeast Syria as soon as the Americans leave.

The furious response in Ankara was the latest setback for the White House’s troubled effort to extricate 2,000 American troops from Syria — a withdrawal that President Trump announced suddenly last month without a detailed plan to implement it.

Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are touring the Middle East, seeking to explain the policy and elicit support. But administration efforts at reassurance have instead raised doubts about the plan, laid bare internal disagreements and perplexed U.S. partners.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Bolton listed pre-withdrawal “objectives” — including the final defeat of the Islamic State and protection of Kurdish allies — that went well beyond Trump’s simple assertion that U.S. forces were heading home from Syria.

“The message that Bolton gave in Israel is unacceptable. It is not possible for us to swallow,” Erdogan said during a televised address to lawmakers in his political party. He suggested he also might ignore the Trump administration’s request to delay a Turkish military operation against the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters. “Very soon, we will take action to neutralize terrorist organizations in Syria,” Erdogan said.

The administration encountered similar pushback elsewhere Tuesday, as U.S. allies pressed their own priorities.

In Jordan, Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi greeted Pompeo with kind words and a smile, but was unyielding in demands that the United States coordinate any troop withdrawal from Syria with regional allies. The minister also rejected Israel’s request that the United States recognize Israeli sovereignty over Syrian territory that Israel occupies in the Golan Heights.

Safadi also emphasized the position of Jordan and other U.S. allies in the Arab world that a pending American proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace must recognize Palestinian statehood with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the administration’s special envoy tasked with establishing a U.S. military alliance with countries in the Persian Gulf resigned his position on Tuesday. Anthony Zinni, who was named to the job last year, said no progress had been made in resolving a bitter dispute dividing gulf countries, which was undermining the prospects for the security pact.

A retired Marine Corps general and former head of U.S. Central Command, Zinni is the latest senior military veteran to leave the administration, following last month’s resignation of retired Marine general Jim Mattis as defense secretary and the departure of retired Marine general John F. Kelly as White House chief of staff.

Most attention, however, was focused on Turkey and the increasingly muddled administration explanation of its intentions in Syria.

Aaron Stein, the Middle East director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said the tensions over the administration’s Syria policy were largely the result of Trump’s staff ignoring “the intent of the president.”

“Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he has been very, very clear that he wants to withdraw from Syria. Instead of listening to that, what the national security bureaucracy is doing is putting together a plan that depends on a forever U.S. presence. Everyone is scrambling to reinterpret the president’s message.” As a result, the U.S. deliberations over Syria, which would normally occur behind closed doors, are “literally happening in front of the entire world,” Stein said.

Responding to media reports that Erdogan had snubbed Bolton by refusing to meet with him, National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said that the U.S. Embassy in Ankara had requested an Erdogan meeting but that because of a “scheduling conflict,” it was “never confirmed.”

Marquis said that Bolton had held a “productive discussion” with Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin during a meeting that lasted more than two hours.

In the meeting, Bolton told Kalin that an op-ed written by Erdogan and published Monday night by the New York Times was inaccurate and offensive, according to a person briefed by a senior administration official who attended the session. Erdogan said in the op-ed that Trump had “made the right call” in announcing a withdrawal from Syria but was seeking to put unwise restrictions on Turkey’s agreement to take the United States’ place.

Bolton presented Kalin with a document restating Trump’s intention to withdraw U.S. forces but also insisting on protection for Kurdish fighters, said the person who had been briefed, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the private diplomatic session. 

According to U.S. talking points, American troops and their allies in Syria would continue attacks against remaining Islamic State forces during an “orderly” U.S. departure period. Though orders have been given to the U.S. military to begin preparing for withdrawal, troops will carry out operations against the militant group as they leave. To prevent an Islamic State resurgence, the United States will retain unspecified capabilities on the ground for ongoing operations.

The withdrawal order does not involve an immediate departure from Syria of a separate U.S. garrison at Tanf in southeast Syria, near the junction of the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The administration has said the force of several hundred U.S. and coalition troops provides a buffer against any expansion by Iranian forces and their proxies, which have been aiding the government of Syrian President Bashar ­al-Assad.

Bolton’s delegation — which included Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and diplomat James Jeffrey, the administration’s special envoy for Syria and for the anti-
Islamic State coalition — stressed that Washington was seeking a negotiated solution to Turkey’s concerns and would cooperate with Ankara on deconflicting airspace over northeast Syria.

During the discussions, Bolton stressed U.S. opposition to any Turkish mistreatment of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have fought alongside the United States against the Islamic State. But Kalin did not budge from Turkey’s insistence that the bulk of those fighters, who are members of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, are allied with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. He said that no offensive action would be taken in Syria while U.S. forces remained but that Turkey was fully within its rights to attack the Kurdish “terrorists.”

Bolton and Pompeo have both insisted on protection for all of the SDF, whose estimated 60,000 fighters include Syrian Arabs as well as Kurds. But this concern has not been made a formal condition of the pullout, according to one person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on sensitive policymaking. This person said that “there will definitely be a fight” between Turkey and the Kurdish forces once the Americans leave Syria.

One possibility is that the Kurdish forces will fragment while resisting a Turkish onslaught. Another possibility is that the Kurds will transfer their loyalty to Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers.

In Jordan on Tuesday, Pompeo said the departure of U.S. troops would not affect U.S. priorities in the region, particularly the goal of stopping Iranian expansion in Syria. Repeating remarks he has previously made in media interviews, Pompeo said that stepped-up, but unspecified, “diplomatic and commercial” pressure would achieve that aim. Before Trump’s withdrawal announcement, Pompeo and Bolton had said U.S. troops would remain indefinitely in Syria, until Iranian-commanded troops and their proxy militias were gone. 

Pompeo said that the U.S.-led coalition in the region “is as effective today as it was yesterday, and I’m very hopeful it will continue to be effective and even more effective tomorrow. This is not just about a particular tactic. . . . The president’s decision to withdraw folks from Syria in no way impacts our capacity to deliver” on the continuing fight against Iran and the Islamic State, he said.

Trump has also said he wants countries in the region to make a bigger financial and military contribution toward promoting their shared aims, a subject that Pompeo plans to address during visits this week and next to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Egypt.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Zeynep Karatas in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this report included a photo caption with an incorrect year. Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and U.S. national security adviser John Bolton met in 2019. It has also been updated to correct the identification of John F. kelly who is a retired Marine general, not an Army general.

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