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Trump’s Syria plans hit another wall after Erdogan snubs Bolton

Middle East | 2019-01-08 22:34:00
Trump’s Syria plans hit another wall after Erdogan snubs Bolton
 Donald Trump’s national security adviser miscalculated if he thought he was going to dissuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from his planned offensive against U.S. allies in Syria.

Erdogan rebuffed a meeting in Ankara on Tuesday with National Security Adviser John Bolton, then took to live television instead to insult him for a lack of perspective. The lira sank as investors recalibrated their views on a rapprochement between the two nations, which run the largest armies in NATO and have long been at odds on how to handle Syria.

The impasse highlights how Trump’s hasty announcement of a U.S. exit from the war-torn country is causing confusion and generating blowback from allies and adversaries alike. Erdogan has been massing Turkish troops on the Syrian border for weeks, preparing for an invasion to eradicate Kurdish forces that the U.S. has vowed to protect.

Since Trump’s announcement, senior members of his administration including Bolton, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and top American military officials have frustrated Turkey by setting more specific conditions to what Trump initially suggested would be a quick withdrawal. The delay has restricted Turkey’s ability to launch an offensive against the YPG, a group of Kurdish fighters it considers terrorists, but who served as allies to the U.S. coalition to defeat Islamic State.

‘Blew Up the Talks’

“A faction within the U.S. wants to turn U.S. positions over to Turkey and reach some sort of broader compromise on the Kurds" that would make their continued hold over a small area more palatable to Ankara, said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “Instead, Bolton’s rhetoric blew up the talks," with the Turkish snub underscoring Turkish concerns about “U.S. intentions, their lack of serious planning, and just how disorganized all of this is."

Erdogan echoed that sentiment in remarks he made to parliament after putting Bolton on hold for a meeting that ultimately didn’t happen. Before arriving in Ankara, Bolton had made clear that he was going to warn Turkey, and had drawn Turkish ire for using the general term “Kurds" in referring to the YPG. Turkey says it has no issue with the Kurds as an ethnic group, but it views the YPG as the Syrian extension of a separatist group in Turkey, the PKK, which the U.S. also classifies as a terrorist organization.

“Although we made a clear agreement with U.S. President Trump, different voices are emerging from different parts of the administration,” Erdogan said as Bolton prepared to leave after meeting other Turkish officials. “Trump’s remarks continue to be the main point of reference for us.”

Read more: About Kurdish Forces U.S. Would Leave Behind in Syria: QuickTake

In the meeting he did have, which lasted more than two hours, Bolton delivered U.S. demands that the Kurds not be mistreated, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified discussing private talks.

The official also said the U.S. would not be withdrawing from its al-Tanf military base in southern Syria at this time. Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin agreed that Turkey wouldn’t take offensive action while U.S. forces remain in Syria, according to the official. But in a sign of the confusion that has marked the administration’s policy, the official said the U.S. will be withdrawing forces from northeastern Syria and defeating the remnants of Islamic State on the way out.

Pompeo had suggested on Monday that Erdogan and Trump already had a firm agreement, telling CNBC that “the Turks would ensure that the folks that we’d fought with, that had assisted us in the counter-ISIS campaign would be protected.”

Technically, a meeting with Bolton would have been a break of protocol for Erdogan, who prefers to speak directly with other heads of state. With Trump in particular, Erdogan believes he has the U.S. president’s ear and sees little value in speaking with his underlings, a senior U.S. diplomat familiar with the matter said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The lira weakened on signs that Turkish-U.S. collaboration in Syria might be at a greater risk of falling apart. The currency was trading 1.8 percent lower at 5.4820 per dollar as of 5:15 p.m. in Istanbul, its weakest on a closing basis in more than two months.

Bolton and a delegation including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford and James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria, met for two hours with people including spokesman Kalin. While a meeting with Erdogan was never formally announced by the Turks, U.S. officials had expected to sit down with him, according to people familiar with the matter.

 Erdogan’s ‘Regards’

Erdogan called Kalin during the meeting and said he couldn’t join them because it was campaign season and he had to give a speech to parliament. Bolton’s team sought to avoid characterizing the move as a snub, with spokesman Garrett Marquis saying Erdogan “sent his regards."

But Erdogan then used much of that speech to tear apart Bolton’s proposals that the U.S.-backed Kurdish group play a substantial role in Syria after U.S. troops withdraw. He also signaled that Turkey would continue with its plans on Syria irrespective of U.S. demands.

“We will very soon mobilize to eliminate terrorist organizations in Syria,” Erdogan said, in language he habitually uses to refer to the YPG as well as to Islamic State. “If there are other terrorists who would attempt to intervene in our intervention, then it is our duty to eliminate them as well."

Turkish Hospitality

In an op-ed for the New York Times on Monday, Erdogan seemed to be addressing an audience of one as he praised Trump’s decision to withdraw and called for a larger role for Turkey in Syria.

“Turkey is volunteering to shoulder this heavy burden at a critical time in history," he wrote. “We are counting on the international community to stand with us."

Bolton told Turkish officials that the New York Times piece was insulting, according to the U.S. official.

As for Bolton, Turkish officials seemed happy to kick him on the way out of the country.

“I hope that he got a taste of the world famous Turkish hospitality during his visit," Fahrettin Altun, head of communications for the Turkish presidency, wrote on Twitter after Bolton left. “Turkey’s national security is non-negotiable," he said. “Acting like Syrian Kurds and members of a U.S.-designated terrorist group are one and the same is an insult to the Kurdish people and our intelligence."

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