Turkish President Snubs Bolton Over Comments That Turkey Must Protect Kurds

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey denounced comments from the American national security adviser, John R. Bolton, that Turkey must agree to protect Kurds if Americans withdraw from Syria. Mr. Bolton was denied a meeting with Mr. Erdogan during his visit to Ankara on Tuesday.

ISTANBUL — President Trump’s muddled plan to withdraw the United States from Syria fell into further disarray on Tuesday after Turkey’s leader rebuffed Mr. Trump’s emissary, John R. Bolton, and angrily dismissed his demand that Turkey agree to protect America’s Kurdish allies.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Mr. Bolton had made a “grave mistake” in setting that condition for the pullout of troops. “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel,” Mr. Erdogan said in Parliament, after refusing to meet with Mr. Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, during his visit to Turkey.

The failure of Mr. Bolton’s mission, which was intended to reassure allies that Mr. Trump would pull out of Syria in an orderly fashion, raised new questions about whether the United States would be able to come to terms with Turkey, a NATO partner, about how to withdraw 2,000 American troops who fought alongside the Kurds against the Islamic State.

It was the latest, most vivid example of what has become a recurring motif in Mr. Trump’s idiosyncratic, leader-to-leader foreign policy: a senior American official humiliated by a foreign head of state who evidently calculated that he could extract a better deal by talking directly to Mr. Trump.

As with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, who has disdained negotiating the future of his nuclear arsenal with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rather than with Mr. Trump himself, Mr. Erdogan was contemptuous of Mr. Bolton’s effort to flesh out an American withdrawal that Mr. Trump broached in a phone call with Mr. Erdogan just before announcing it on Dec. 19.

The Turkish leader hailed Mr. Trump for making “the right call” in an opinion piece in The New York Times. He argued that Turkey, with the second-largest standing army in NATO, was the only country with the power and commitment to replace American forces in northeastern Syria, fight terrorism and ensure stability for the Syrian people.

But Pentagon officials have voiced deep skepticism that Turkish forces have either the capacity or the will to carry out extensive counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State. They also warn that any Turkish incursions into northeastern Syria would lead to clashes with the Syrian Kurdish-Arab coalition allied with the Americans.

“The Turks don’t like ISIS, but ISIS doesn’t threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity,” said Robert S. Ford, the last American ambassador to Syria. “An autonomous Syrian Kurdish zone in northeastern Syria does threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity.”

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A Timeline of U.S. Military Involvement in Syria

How long have American troops been in Syria and what is their mission? Here’s a look back at the military’s recent involvement there as the White House attempts to withdraw U.S. forces.

In December, President Trump made an extraordinary declaration about U.S. involvement in Syria: “We have won against ISIS. Now, it’s time for our troops to come back home.” Ignoring advice from his generals and advisers, Trump said that the U.S. would leave Syria. Defense Department officials said that they were ordered to do it within 30 days. [explosion] Then came a flurry of criticism, even from inside his own party. “I believe it is a catastrophic mistake.” “This is very disappointing.” “It needs to be reconsidered.” Then, the resignations. First, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis quit. And America’s chief diplomat in the fight against ISIS, Brett McGurk, soon followed. Now, the timeline for a full withdrawal is unclear. “I never said we’re doing it that quickly.” He went on to say that the U.S. will leave at a proper pace while continuing to fight ISIS, a shift from — “They’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.” The nearly eight-year-long war in Syria has left hundreds of thousands of people dead. [explosion] So, how did we get here and what are U.S. forces doing in Syria? In 2011, uprisings rippled through the Middle East. Leaders fell in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. And after months of anti-government protests in Syria, the U.S. had a message for President Bashar al-Assad: “This morning, President Obama called on Assad to step aside.” He didn’t and the conflict escalated. In 2012, Obama warned Assad against using Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons against his own people. “That’s a red line for us, and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing the use of chemical weapons.” A year later, Assad’s army launched a chemical attack on a Damascus suburb, killing 1,400 people. [screaming] In response, the U.S. debated airstrikes, but they were avoided when Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons. But a new threat was also emerging — ISIS. In 2014, the U.S. began supporting rebel groups to fight extremists, while also conducting airstrikes as part of an international coalition. These efforts expanded and the U.S. troop numbers grew from hundreds to the low thousands. In 2016, U.S.-supported fighters took control of the ISIS stronghold of Manbij — and in 2017 their de facto capital, Raqqa. There are now around 2,000 American forces in Syria who are largely fighting alongside the Kurdish groups. This has been a problem for America’s ally Turkey, which has a long-standing conflict with the Kurds. U.S. troops have had run-ins with Assad’s forces as well as groups backed by Russia and Iran. Since taking office, Trump has ordered two strikes on areas controlled by Assad in response to chemical weapons attacks. “We are prepared to sustain this response, until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” U.S. officials and allies dispute the claim that ISIS has been defeated. They warn that an American departure will weaken U.S. influence in the region and may embolden Russia, Iran and Turkey, who are also on the ground. The other worry? The move may inspire some ISIS fighters to return to Syria.

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How long have American troops been in Syria and what is their mission? Here’s a look back at the military’s recent involvement there as the White House attempts to withdraw U.S. forces.CreditCredit...Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

“I don’t know how you square this circle,” said Mr. Ford, who teaches at Yale and is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Squaring the circle has fallen to Mr. Bolton since Mr. Trump’s announcement, which drew fierce criticism from lawmakers in both parties, blindsided military commanders, prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and rattled allies, chiefly Israel.

In Jerusalem, before he traveled to the Turkish capital, Ankara, Mr. Bolton pledged that American forces would remain in Syria until the Islamic State was fully defeated, setting the stage for a more gradual withdrawal than the one Mr. Trump heralded. He also demanded guarantees that Turkey would not attack Kurdish forces allied with the Americans.

“We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States, at a minimum so they don’t endanger our troops,” Mr. Bolton told reporters.

Once in Ankara, he also protested to Turkish officials about Mr. Erdogan’s Times piece. In it, the Turkish president wrote that the American-led coalition against the Islamic State had carried out airstrikes in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, that showed “little or no regard for civilian casualties” — something he said Turkish troops had avoided in their counterterrorism operations.

Mr. Erdogan and the Turkish government were clearly rankled. The pro-government, English-language paper Daily Sabah accused Mr. Bolton of being part of a “soft coup against Trump” in Washington, adding, “It was probably a bad idea for Bolton to go rogue and try to impose conditions on the United States withdrawal from Syria.”

In fact, Mr. Trump has pushed back against suggestions that he is out of sync with his national security adviser. Mr. Pompeo, who joined Mr. Bolton and other officials in urging the president to slow down the withdrawal in Syria, is starting a trip to the Middle East in which he is expected to deliver the same message as Mr. Bolton.

Aides to Mr. Bolton insisted that he did not feel snubbed by Mr. Erdogan. “The U.S. Embassy in Turkey requested a series of meetings, but due to scheduling conflicts one with President Erdogan was never confirmed,” a spokesman for Mr. Bolton, Garrett Marquis, said in a statement.

Mr. Erdogan said there was no need for a meeting, since he was busy and Mr. Bolton had met with his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, anyway. But he said he was now likely to call Mr. Trump.

Even before Mr. Bolton’s comments angered Mr. Erdogan, discussions were bound to show how far apart the two sides were in their priorities in Syria, according to political analysts.

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Credit...Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Turkey’s main motive for supporting a withdrawal of American forces is that it would end support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., which Turkey regards as a terrorist group, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the Ankara director for the German Marshall Fund of the United States. It would also eliminate the prospect of a Kurdish-run autonomous territory in northern Syria, which Turkey regards as a threat to its own stability.

The Y.P.G. is widely seen as the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the P.K.K., which has been fighting an insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s and is designated as a terrorist organization by that country, the United States and the European Union.

Turkey supports rebels fighting the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad but opposes groups it considers to be terrorists, including the Y.P.G. and the Islamic State. It backs the 30,000-strong Free Syrian Army, renamed the National Liberation Front, which has fought against both the Islamic State and Y.P.G. forces in Afrin.

The Trump administration would like Turkey to agree not to move against the Y.P.G. and its political branch, known as the P.Y.D., in the event of an American withdrawal. But Mr. Unluhisarcikli called that a “hopeless cause,” adding: “It is not a question of whether. Turkey will not tolerate the P.K.K. on its borders. So it is only a matter of time.”

One area where the United States and Turkey could find common ground is how to proceed with the Syrian town Manbij, a strategic crossroads in northern Syria where American forces have a base and where the Kurdish Y.P.G. dominates the local council.

Turkey has been threatening to advance on the city, demanding that the Y.P.G. leave and complaining that the United States is dragging its feet in bringing that about. But American forces have been conducting joint patrols with Turkish forces around Manbij, and they have finally reached agreement on the criteria for vetting officials to run the local council.

Turkish forces have been mustering for an operation into northeastern Syria, but the Turkish military does not want to extend more than about 10 miles into the country, Mr. Unluhisarcikli said.

After his speech in Parliament, Mr. Erdogan told reporters that an incursion into Syria might happen “at any moment after the Bolton meetings,” the news channel NTV reported.

“If they are terrorists, we will do what is necessary no matter where they come from,” Mr. Erdogan said earlier. He suggested that Mr. Bolton and other aides were trying to confuse the understanding he had with Mr. Trump over the withdrawal.

“Different voices have started emerging from different segments of the administration,” Mr. Erdogan said.

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