Bolton in Turkey to discuss US pullout from Syria
The White House’s National Security adviser John Bolton met with Ankara officials on Tuesday to discuss the surprise withdrawal of US troops from Syria, as the Turkish president hailed the pullout as “the right call”.
US President Donald Trump caused a political storm last month when he announced the pullout because the battle against the Islamic State (IS) group had been won.
He has since rowed back, vowing the withdrawal would be done in a “prudent” way.
Tensions erupted ahead of the Ankara talks after Bolton said Sunday the retreat was also conditional on the safety of US-backed Kurdish fighters, considered terrorists by Turkey.
Ankara immediately hit back at his “irrational” claim that it would target Kurds.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was “the only country with the power and commitment” to stabilise Syria after the US pullout, in an opinion column published in the New York Times Tuesday.
“President Trump made the right call to withdraw from Syria,” he added, outlining Turkey’s “comprehensive strategy” to eliminate the causes of radicalisation in the war-torn country.
Bolton held talks with Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin on Tuesday morning to discuss how the withdrawal would take place.
A post-meeting press conference was cancelled without further explanation.
Joining Bolton were General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the anti-Islamic State (IS) group envoy James Jeffrey.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall Fund of the United States said the visit was “an opportunity to test to what extent Turkey is willing to fulfil expectations of the US against” IS.
When Trump first announced the pullout of 2,000 ground troops on December 19, Ankara was a lonely voice among NATO allies welcoming the decision.
Erdogan has promised Trump that Turkey could finish off the remnants of IS in Syria.
“A military victory against the terrorist group is a mere first step,” he said in the New York Times, warning against premature declarations of victory.
Trump said Monday the fight against IS was not over.
“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 tweeted.
Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said Ankara would need support from Washington to completely eradicate IS, “to the point where the US military would essentially still be inside Syria”.
The US had been working closely with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance.
But US-Turkey relations have been especially rocky over American military support to the YPG.
Ankara says the YPG is a “terrorist offshoot” of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
The PKK is proscribed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
Last month, Erdogan threatened to launch a cross-border operation against the YPG, east of the Euphrates River, which he said later would be delayed after Trump’s order.
But Turkey has sent military convoys to its border with Syria and inside the war-ravaged country.
Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan said Ankara was currently being held back on the operation by the issue of airspace, which was on the agenda for Tuesday’s talks.
Gurcan said it was not clear whether the US would withdraw from the airspace, but even if Washington did so, Ankara would need the support of Moscow for any operation.
Turkish military forces supporting Syrian rebels launched incursions into northern Syria against IS in August 2016 and against the YPG in January 2018.
But Syria experts and anonymous US officials in American media have raised concerns over whether Turkey has the ability, or even desire, to fight IS in Syria.
“Turkey has only one interest, which is to defeat the YPG. So that is what it is going to do,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East programme director at the International Crisis Group think tank.
‘Fundamental issues’ remain
According to Gurcan, the FBI’s investigation into the movement of US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen was also on Tuesday’s agenda.
The US refusal to extradite Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999, has been a key source of tension with Turkey.
Turkey says Gulen ordered the 2016 failed overthrow of Erdogan but the preacher strongly denies the claim.
Last week, a US delegation, including FBI officials, came to Ankara where they asked questions to suspects accused of links to Gulen in a visit hailed by Turkish officials.
But analyst Unluhisarcikli said there were still “fundamental issues to be resolved” — including Washington’s opposition to Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system as well as the continued detention of local US mission employees in Turkey.
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