John Bolton: No Withdrawal from Syria Without Security Guarantees for Kurds

In this Dec. 13, 2018 file photo, National Security Advisor John Bolton unveils the Trump Administration's Africa Strategy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. The White House has sent Bolton on a mission to allay Israel's concerns about President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. The pullout …
AP Photo/Cliff Owen

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said in remarks during his trip to Israel Sunday that President Donald Trump does not intend to withdraw troops from Syria until he is satisfied with security guarantees for the Syrian Kurdish militias fighting there, which have played a key role in the defeat of the Islamic State.

The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have proven to be America’s most reliable ally in Syria, leading the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition that liberated Raqqa, the “capital” of the caliphate, from ISIS. The government of Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist organization Washington has designated a terrorist group, as well.

Washington maintains that the YPG and the PKK are two different entities, infuriating the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Following President Donald Trump’s remarks implying he would soon withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, Erdogan officials suggested they were ready to send troops into northern Manbij, Syria, where the YPG is established. American troops are currently stationed in Manbij, making a Turkish offensive against the Kurds a major risk for Ankara.

Speaking shortly before leaving to Ankara to meet with senior Turkish officials, including Erdogan, Bolton asserted that the Trump administration highly discouraged Turkish troops from operating without coordinating with U.S. counterparts, particularly regarding the Syrian Kurds.

“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 but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered,” Bolton reportedly said, adding that Trump would “not allow Turkey to kill the Kurds.”

Bolton asserted that U.S. troops were not going to leave the Manbij area anytime soon without concrete safeguards in place for the Kurds, suggesting an indefinite timeline for withdrawal, if withdrawal occurs at all. The New York Times reported that Bolton required of the Turks significant assurances that they would not expel the Kurds from Manbij before U.S. troops left.

This contrasted with initial statements President Trump made lat month stating that, as the Islamic State no longer posed the threat it once did, he would have his troops leave the Syrian war theater.

“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at the time. “The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders.”

Trump dismissed the New York Times report on the indefinite Syria withdrawal on Twitter Monday.

“The Failing New York Times has knowingly written a very inaccurate story on my intentions on Syria,” he claimed. “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!”

Bolton arrived in Ankara Monday with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and several other senior military leaders. Anadolu Agency, the state news organization of Turkey, reported that he would discuss the Syria situation as well as repeated Turkish demands to extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania and Erdogan claims operates a terrorist organization. Gülen leads an Islamic movement known as hismet and a network of charter schools around the world.

Yeni Safak, a virulently pro-Erdogan newspaper, reported that Bolton arrived in Ankara with a map of a “new Sykes-Picot” arrangement breaking up Syrian territory into Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab, and Kurdish sectors. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 created the modern borders of the Middle East and became a rallying cry for the Islamic State in 2013-2014; the “caliphate” was intended to tear down the British and French early 20th century borders. Yeni Safak cited the Wall Street Journal as the source of their reporting.

Turkish officials have already responded to Bolton’s remarks Sunday, calling them “irrational.”

“The issue is PKK/PYD/YPG are making efforts to establish an order by oppressing Kurds, who don’t obey them, and their terrorist activities against our country,” Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalın said. “There is no doubt that a terror group cannot be an ally of the U.S.”

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