Turkish Presidential advisor Ibrahim Kalin (R) with US National Security Advisor John Bolton (Anadolu)


Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has kept up pressure on the Trump Administration while pointing to a pullback of Donald Trump’s order for departure of US troops: “We can see that the US has difficulties with the withdrawal. It seems when you are this intertwined with a terror organisation, it is difficult to leave.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has snubbed US agencies over proposals for northern Syria, refusing to meet National Security Advisor John Bolton on Tuesday.

Far from reaching an accord over Donald Trump’s order to remove all 2,000 US troops from Syria — an order now limited and possibly suspended by Bolton and the Pentagon — Ankara piled on pressure.

Ibrahim Kalin, a senior advisor to Erdoğan — shown in a viral photograph cornering Bolton — said the Government is asking the US to hand over 16 military bases to “Turkey or local authorities” and is demanding the return of American weapons given to the Kurdish militia YPG, the leading faction in the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces.

Bolton was accompanied in his meeting with Kalin by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and the US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu did not attend.

Kalın said Bolton asked to see Erdoğan, but claimed there was no scheduled meeting.

He stressed that it should not be considered as a “reaction”, but Daily Sabah, close to the Erdoğan Government, drove home the message with a headline trying to split the US Administration, “A soft coup against Donald Trump“:

[If] Bolton thought yesterday’s visit was going to be a walk in the park, he must have had a rude awakening thanks to the lukewarm reception in the Turkish capital Ankara. In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea for Bolton to go rogue and try to impose conditions on the United States withdrawal from Syria.

Daily Sabah columnist Burhanettin Duran declared, “Trump’s men seek to undermine his decision to leave Syria.”

US National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis did not respond directly to questions about whether Erdogan had cancelled the meeting with Bolton. He maintained:

They had a productive discussion of the President’s decision to withdraw at a proper pace from northeast Syria, identified further issues for dialogue, and emphasized the strong bilateral relationship between the US and Turkey.

The US looks forward to the ongoing military-to-military consultations today on our cooperation in Syria.

Division Over Approach to Syrian Kurdistan

Bolton travelled to Israel and then Ankara as the American agencies pulled back Donald Trump’s impulsive decision, made during a December 14 phone call with Erdoğan, for the departure of all 2,000 American troops within 30 days. The Pentagon and National Security Council extended the timetable to four months.

Then, in Jerusalem on Sunday, Bolton set two conditions pointing to the presence of US troops for months and even years: the complete defeat of the Islamic State and assurances that Turkey would not attack the Kurdish groups who have been Washington’s partners in the fight against ISIS.

Syria Daily, Jan 7: Trump’s Withdrawal is Suspended

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.

The statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton about the Turkish threat to the Kurds, amid Erdoğan’s declarations through the autumn of an imminent offensive by Turkey’s forces and Syrian rebels, angered the Turkish President and his officials.

So Erdoğan refused any discussion with the US official and gave a speech to Parliament:

Bolton’s remarks in Israel are not acceptable. It is not possible for me to swallow this.

Bolton made a serious mistake. If he thinks that way, he is in a big mistake. We will not compromise.

The US created the Syrian Democratic Forces in autumn 2015 to push back the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria. The SDF has reduced ISIS to a pocket near the Iraqi border, as Kurdish groups now control about 27% of Syrian territory.

But Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG as part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK. Erdoğan has vowed the “erasure” of the “terrorists” along the Turkish-Syrian border.

“We completed our military preparations. We are determined to take steps on YPG. We will soon move to eliminate terror groups in Syria,” the Turkish President repeated on Tuesday.

He continued the tactic of trying to turn Trump against his advisors:

Although we had openly discussed with Mr. Trump, different voices from certain circles of the U.S. administration are now heard. Our reference point is Mr. Trump’s perspective and commitment on withdrawing from Syria.

The Turkish President later told reporters that the Bolton-Kalın talks made it necessary for a phone call with Trump to clarify issues.

Trump Sidelined?

Trump, who has said almost nothing about Syria this week, was silent on Tuesday. In his place, “people familiar with the President’s thinking” said his position has shifted so he is now in line with Bolton.

Trump’s decision for withdrawal, made without consultation with civilian and military advisors, led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — whom Trump then tried to humiliate — and Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition.

But US officials are now framing a Trump conversion after he met military commanders in Iraq during a sudden visit on December 26. They said he was told that — in contrast with Erdoğan’s “99% defeated” statement during their phone call 12 days earlier — the Islamic State was still active in Syria and US withdrawal would have a negative effect.

Still, Trump continued to threaten another objective of Bolton and Pompeo, the presence of US forces to curb Iranian influence in Syria. Last Wednesday, in a rambling statement, Trump said, “[The Iranians] can do what they want there.”