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Trump's shifting timetable on Syria leaves allies scrambling

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks to reporters on his plane on his way to the Middle East, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/POOL VIA AP

By ZEKE MILLER | Associated Press | Published: January 8, 2019

ANKARA, Turkey — President Donald Trump's shifting timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria has left allies and other players in the region confused and jockeying for influence over a withdrawal strategy that appeared to be a work in progress.

One day after White House national security adviser John Bolton announced the U.S. pullout would not be as immediate as Trump had initially declared, U.S. allies on Monday sought clarification from American diplomats. The Kurds, who have fought alongside U.S. forces against the Islamic State group and fear an assault by Turkey if the U.S. withdraws, were still asking publicly for an explanation from Washington.

Bolton said the U.S. would first seek assurances from Turkey that it would not harm the Kurds — for the first time adding a "condition" to the withdrawal. He arrived Monday in Turkey to seek those guarantees from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but there was little reason for optimism. In a New York Times op-ed published ahead of the Tuesday meeting, Erdogan referred to the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, or YPG, as a terrorist group, Turkey's longtime position, and rejected any role for Kurdish fighters in restoring peace to the war-torn region.

The piece set up a contentious day of diplomacy for Bolton and underscored the destabilizing impact of Trump's shoot-from-the-hip approach to foreign policy. Trump's spur-of-the-moment withdrawal came with no details, leaving allies scrambling for answers and aides crafting a strategy that can satisfy all the players, including Trump.

Trump discussed Syria during a phone call on Monday with French President Emmanuel Macron, who had panned Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops and warned it could have dangerous consequences. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said they discussed the commitment of their two countries "to the destruction of ISIS as well as plans for a strong, deliberate, and coordinated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria."

Bolton said Sunday, "We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States." Trump has made clear that he would not allow Turkey to kill Kurds, Bolton added. "That's what the president said, the ones that fought with us."

Erdogan proposed in his op-ed to stand up a "stabilization force featuring fighters from all parts of Syrian society" to safeguard northeast Syria once American troops leave, though he said an "intensive vetting process" will exclude fighters with "links to terrorist organizations," which in his government's view includes the YPG.

Bolton did not respond to the op-ed ahead of Tuesday's meetings, but such an offer would appear unlikely to be acceptable to the U.S. Bolton had said the protection of U.S. allies in Syria, including the YPG, was among "the objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal" of U.S. forces.

Speaking to The Associated Press from northern Syria on Monday, a Syrian Kurdish official said the Kurds have not been informed of any change in the U.S. position and were in the dark about Bolton's latest comments.

"We have not been formally or directly notified, all what we heard were media statements," Badran Ciya Kurd said.

Kurdish officials have held conversations with Moscow and Syrian President Bashar Assad's government about protection, but Bolton called on them to "stand fast now."

Bolton's pronouncements were the first public confirmation from the administration that the pace of the drawdown had changed since Trump's announcement in mid-December that U.S. troops are "coming back now." Trump faced widespread criticism from allies about his decision, including that he was abandoning the Kurds in the face of Turkish threats. Officials said at the time that although many details of the withdrawal had not yet been finalized, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.

At the time, Trump had also said that Turkey would step up the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria, but Bolton said Sunday U.S. troops will eliminate what remains of IS as another "condition" to northeastern Syria.

Trump on Monday struck back to the perception that his intentions in Syria had changed. "No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!....." he said in a tweet.

While Sanders said last month the administration had "started returning United States troops home," the Pentagon said Monday no U.S. troops have withdrawn from Syria yet, but added that there is an "approved framework" for withdrawal.

Bolton maintained there is no fixed timetable for completing the drawdown, but insisted it was not an indefinite commitment to the region. Still, some 200 U.S. troops will remain in the vicinity of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region, he said.

In meetings with Turkish officials Tuesday, Bolton said he will seek "to find out what their objectives and capabilities are and that remains uncertain."

He will be joined by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who will remain in Turkey for additional meetings with Turkish military officials, as well as Jim Jeffrey, the special representative for Syrian engagement and the newly named American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition. Jeffrey will travel from Turkey into Syria to reassure the Kurdish fighters that they are not being abandoned, Bolton said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Washington on Monday for an eight-nation trip of the Middle East. Both he and Bolton are seeking input and support for the specifics of the withdrawal plan, according to one official, who said U.S. partners were eager for details.

AP writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Bob Burns and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.
 

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