Bolton faces uphill task in Turkey

Before his visit to Turkey, Bolton added a new condition to the withdrawal from Syria, saying Turkey must agree to protect the US's Kurdish allies.
Tuesday 08/01/2019
National Security Advisor John Bolton unveils the Trump Administration's Africa Strategy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. (AP)
National Security Advisor John Bolton unveils the Trump Administration's Africa Strategy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Donald Trump’s national security advisor faced an uphill task on January 8 as he held more than two hours of talks with the Turkish leadership in Ankara about US plans for a slowed-down withdrawal from Syria.

John Bolton was joined by US military chief General Joseph Dunford and the administration’s Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, in the talks in the Turkish capital. The online edition of the Hurriyet newspaper said the US delegation met Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and top foreign policy adviser of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, deputy leaders of Turkey’s defence ministry and intelligence service and other officials. The meeting lasted two hours and ten minutes, the daily reported. No results were immediately available.

Turkey’s Anadolu news agency said Bolton was also due to meet Erdogan, although Erdogan’s official daily schedule did not include talks with the US national security adviser.

Trump made the decision to withdraw the 2,000 US soldiers from Syria in a phone call with Erdogan last month. But the US president quickly came under fire both at home and abroad for his abrupt move that appeared to leave the Syrian-Kurdish militia People's Protection Units (YPG), Washington’s most important ally in the fight against the Islamic State, open to an attack by Syria’s neighbour Turkey. Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist organisation that threatens Turkey’s national security by running an autonomous region along Syria’s northern border.

As a result, Trump and senior administration officials such as Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have walked back the announcement of an immediate withdrawal, with the president now speaking of a “prudent” process. Before his visit to Turkey, Bolton added a new condition to the withdrawal, saying Turkey must agree to protect the Kurdish allies of the United States

In another development that could fan Turkey’s ire, Pompeo did not rule out the deployment of military forces from Arab countries in northern Syria once the US troops leave. “We’re going to talk a lot about how to make sure we’re doing everything we can – we the broader we, the collective we, not just the United States,” Pompeo told reporters before embarking on his own tour of Middle East countries, according to a transcript by the State Department.

That is not what the Turkish government wants to hear. Kalin made it clear before his meeting with Bolton that Ankara was determined to play a crucial role in northern Syria as the fighting in the war-torn country seemingly winds down after almost eight years. Kalin recalled that Erdogan’s saying that “we will be both on the ground and at the table” in Syria meant that both military and diplomatic means were options for Turkey, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

Erdogan underlined that Turkey had “no argument with the Syrian Kurds,” but was fighting what his country regards as terrorist groups. Writing in the New York Times, the Turkish leader  said the US withdrawal from Syria must be planned carefully and with the right partners, saying Turkey was the only country “with the power and commitment to perform that task.” Erdogan said Turkey was committed to defeating Ithe slamic State (ISIS) and “other terrorist groups” in Syria.

“President Trump made the right call to withdraw from Syria. The United States withdrawal, however, must be planned carefully and performed in cooperation with the right partners to protect the interests of the United States, the international community and the Syrian people,” Erdogan wrote. “Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest standing army, is the only country with the power and commitment to perform that task.”

Erdogan also proposed the creation of a “stabilisation force” in Syria, with fighters from all parts of Syrian society. “Only a diverse body can serve all Syrian citizens and bring law and order to various parts of the country.” Hurriyet reported that Turkey would ask the United States to hand over its military bases in Syria to Ankara or destroy them. The request could further complicate discussions over the US withdrawal.

Bolton’s talks in Ankara were also expected to address Turkey’s plan to buy a Russian missile-defence system, a decision criticised by the United States and other NATO partners. The Turkish side was expected to renew calls for an extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based leader of a Muslim movement accused by Erdogan of having organised the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016.