Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, May 2017
Donald Trump has added to the confusion over US policy in Syria with a pair of rambling tweets.
Trump had been silent for several days about his December 19 order for withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops, who have been supporting a Kurdish-led force in pushing back the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria.
Meanwhile, his Administration fell into division and confrontation over the proposed departure. National Security Advisor John Bolton signalled the pushback of US agencies, setting conditions for the withdrawal that could apply for months or even years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refused to meet Bolton in Ankara, amid Turkish anger over US warnings not to attack Syrian Kurdish factions.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, touring the Middle East, then issued vague and somewhat contradictory statements. He said that the withdrawal would be completed but that the US would continue with the fight against ISIS and would remove any Iranian influence in Syria.
Trump turned to Twitter on Sunday afternoon. He began by maintaining the tension in US policy, saying withdrawal will begin but appearing to back Bolton’s condition that the Islamic State has to be vanquished — a shift from Trump’s insistence in December, fed by Erdoğan, that ISIS has been “completely defeated”. He spoke of a permanent US presence, apparently in a base in western Iraq.
The he issued a warning to Ankara:
Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2019
Trump did not explain if the “safe zone”, presumably in Kurdish areas of northeast Syria, will be enforced — given the departure of US troops — with American airpower. Instead, he said he did “not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey”, and then appeared to condemn his own policy of ensuring the defeat of the Islamic State: “Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries”.
Trump unsettled his officials earlier this week by saying that the Iranians “can do whatever they want” in Syria.
The Pentagon and Bolton’s National Security Council have seen the US presence as essential to limit the position of the Islamic Republic, an essential ally of the Assad regime, in Syria.
US-Turkish Talks This Week
Since its creation in autumn 2015, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have taken control of about 27% of Syria. The Islamic State has been reduced to a pocket on the Iraqi border.
But Turkey considers the Kurdish militia YPG, the leading group in the SDF, as part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.
The Erdoğan Government, which has been trying to split Trump from officials such as Bolton, did not respond to the tweets. Instead, Turkish officials presented the line that “Turkey and the United States will intensify talks this week” and rewrote last week’s friction with Bolton as “comprehensive negotiations…that sought coordination of the U.S. withdrawal so that no vacuums would be created to the advantage of the terror groups”.
Turkish media cited “one of the US priorities was to urge Turkey to give assurances on the protection of the YPG after the withdrawal”, while emphasizing Ankara’s position “that it will never seek any other country’s consent in taking own measures against the terrorist presence just across its borders.
The outlets quoted Pompeo’s holding statement from the UAE on Saturday:
We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those – that protects the Turks from legitimate terror threats, and prevents any substantial risk to the folks who don’t present terror risks to Turkey.
Pompeo, who spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Saturday, said US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey will lead the American side in this week’s discussions.
Turkey is demanding that the US gather all weapons which it has given to the YPG and to ensure that US bases are not handed over to the Kurdish militia but to Syrian Arab or Turkish forces.