'Erdogan doesn't care about ISIS,' Trump tells Bolton

Bolton explains inconsistencies in statements by various government officials and contradictions in the United States’ Syria policy, after Trump announced his intention to withdraw troops from Syria in December 2018.

John Bolton, former national security adviser to US President Donald Trump, in his new book The Room Where It Happened revealed previously unknown details of how the United States decided to withdraw from Syria.

Bolton explains how US media, namely the New York Times and Washington Post, reported on inconsistencies in statements by various government officials and contradictions in the United States’ Syria policy, after Trump announced his intention to withdraw troops from Syria in December 2018.

Trump promised his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call that US forces would withdraw from Syria’s Kurdish-held northeast, which Bolton clearly opposed.

With the start of the civil war in 2011, Syrian Kurds had focused on holding territory in the northeast, where they implemented what they called an autonomous democratic administration. They mostly avoided clashing with Syrian government forces, and fought fundamentalist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) instead, for which they received support from a US-led international coalition.

In December, Trump thought Turkey “had been ready for months before to cross into Syria, which is why he wanted to get out to begin with, before Turkey attacked the Kurds with our people still in place.”

“Erdogan doesn’t care about ISIS,” Trump told Bolton, adding that the US “would remain capable of hitting ISIS after we left Syria.”

In August of 2019, US Special Envoy Jim Jeffrey, who served as US ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010, his fourth assignment to the country in a diplomatic career that began in 1977, had said there had been "no talks with Turks on protecting Kurds ... or stopping an invasion, because we don't see an invasion," during a State Department press briefing. Only two months after this statement, Turkish forces entered northeastern Syria, taking over a chunk of land.

Turkish military commanders wanted to say they were protecting Turkey from terrorist attacks, Bolton said, citing General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, but were “a lot less interested in going into Syria than Erdogan and were looking for reasons they could use to avoid conducting military operations south of their border.”

A few days before these talks, during a trip to Israel, Trump had been made aware of Turkey’s discontent with “various of my remarks reported in the press,” Bolton said in the book. “Of course, I hadn’t said anything Trump hadn’t said to Erdogan.”

Trump told Bolton during this trip that his base wanted to get out of Syria — “which meant visiting Turkey would certainly be fun.”

Indeed, the next day, as we flew from Jerusalem, the embassy in Ankara was hearing Erdogan was so irritated that he might cancel the meeting scheduled with me. In diplomatic circles, this was seen as a slight, but I saw it as proof our Syria policy was right on the mark, from the US perspective, if not Turkey’s.

In Ankara, early days of January of 2019, Bolton received a call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who told him that “Trump was unhappy with a New York Times story,” due to the newspaper reporting contradictions between officials, many of which, “of course … came from Trump himself.”

Among others, Pompeo had said the United States “would not allow Turkey to slaughter the Kurds,” which “certainly irritated the Turks.” The two agreed on the possibility that Trump’s desire to exit Syria “came crashing into his statement about protecting the Kurds.”

The next day, Bolton said, the Washington Post ran a story that “reported unhappily that Trump and I were actually on the same page on Syria,” contradicting a story published a day before. Dealing with the media and Trump’s changing thinking was “like making and executing policy inside a pinball machine,” Bolton said.

All this confused press coverage reveals both the inconsistencies within Trump’s own thinking, and reporting based on second — and third-hand sources, exacerbated under a President who spent a disproportionate share of his time watching his Administration being covered in the press. It is difficult beyond description to pursue a complex policy in a contentious part of the world where the policy is subject to instant modification based on the boss’s perception of how inaccurate and often-already-outdated information is reported by writers who don’t have the Administration’s best interests at heart in the first place. It was like making and executing policy inside a pinball machine, not the west awing of the White House.

In Ankara, most likely before the US delegation met with the Turkish delegation, Jeffrey, “contrary to the statement of principles… circulated a color-coded map of northeast Syria, showing which parts of north-eastern Syria he proposed to allow Turkey to take over and which the Kurds could retain.”

Dunford, who was in the same delegation in Ankara to meet with Turkish officials, “didn’t like what the map showed at all,” Bolton wrote, and told Bolton it was “certainly his position” to “keep the Turks entirely on their side of the border with Syria east of the Euphrates River” as Bolton proposed.

I said I wanted to see northeastern Syria look much as it did now, but without US troops being present; I knew that might be ‘mission impossible’ but thought it should at least be the objective we sought even if we couldn’t reach it. Dunford agreed. At this point, Jeffrey finally wandered in, and we went through the draft statement of principles we could give to the Turks. I added a new sentence to make clear we didn’t want to see the Kurds mistreated and took pains to show we didn’t accept a Turkish presence, military or otherwise, in northeastern Syria. Dunford and Jeffrey agreed to the draft, which, along with the map, in light of developments after I left the White House, is now purely a matter of historical interest.

Erdogan then cancelled a planned meeting with Bolton, saying he would be delivering a speech in parliament. “As we learned later, Erdogan’s speech was a preplanned attack on what I presented as the US position,” Bolton said. “Erdogan had not moved an inch from his insistence that Turkey have a free hand in northeastern Syria, which we could not allow if we wanted to prevent retribution against the Kurds.”

Erdogan was firm in his speech, completely ruling out any concessions or compromises, and “essentially gave a campaign speech,” Bolton said. Talking with Pompeo later, Bolton agreed with the secretary that “our views on the Kurds were ‘irreconcilable’ with Turkey’s and they needed to be ‘really careful’.”

Pompeo spoke to Bolton about his approach to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, saying Turkey has a choice. “You can either have us on your border, or the Russians and the Iranians [who would almost certainly move into northeastern Syria when we withdrew],” Pompeo was planning to say, to which Bolton agreed.

“Just don’t show any weakness or anything,” Trump told Bolton. “The Turks and the Kurds have been fighting for many years. We’re not getting involved in a civil war, but we are finishing off ISIS.”

Ilhan Tanir is a Washington, DC-based journalist who has covered US politics and US-Turkish relations for Turkish national newspapers and online publications for more than a decade

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