ANKARA, Turkey — President Donald Trump’s plans for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria were thrown into more uncertainty Tuesday as national security adviser John Bolton left the region after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet with him. Bolton’s mission to smooth a troop withdrawal with U.S. allies instead ended in only widening the rift with Turkey.
The path forward now appears more muddled than ever given Trump’s demand for assurances that Turkey protect Syrian Kurds after U.S. troops depart and Erdogan’s public snub of Bolton.
A senior administration official told NBC News that Trump thought he had gotten a commitment from Erdogan in a Dec. 23 phone call that Turkey would protect the Syrian Kurds, who have been a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State, after the American troops leave.
But a defiant Erdogan on Tuesday declined to meet with Bolton, who was in Turkey for talks about the withdrawal. In a speech to his political party, Erdogan said that Bolton had made a "serious mistake" in saying no U.S. troops would leave northeast Syria without such a commitment.
Erdogan said that Turkey would never compromise on the issue of the Syrian Kurds, or YPG Kurdish militia, which Turkey sees as a terrorist organization and part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.
Bolton met for more than two hours earlier in the day with his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, the senior administration official, who was at the meeting, said. During that meeting, Bolton presented Kalin with a list of five conditions the U.S. has for withdrawing troops from Syria — items agreed to by Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria and the fight against ISIS, according to the senior administration official.
The list includes "a negotiated solution to Turkish security concerns,” the official said, and stipulates: "We want the protection of all civilians, particularly local minority populations. We’ll cooperate with Turkey on de-conflicting the airspace over northeast Syria. The United States opposes any mistreatment of opposition forces who fought with us against ISIS.”
Turkey rejected the proposal.
"I think it’s fair to say that the United States stuck by the president’s request as reflected in these points that the Kurds, that the opposition forces that fought with us, not be mistreated," the U.S. official said. "And the Turks stuck by their position that the PYD and the YPG are terrorist groups and they’re free to go after them." (The PYD, or Democratic Union Party, is the political wing of the YPG.)
Kalin told Bolton that Erdogan had committed Turkey to not taking offensive action in Syria while U.S. forces were there, the official said.
The official said Erdogan’s speech on Tuesday was not at odds with the commitment Trump thought he had gotten from Erdogan during their Dec. 23 phone call.
National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said Erdogan called Kalin during their meeting and told him to send his regards to Bolton. However, Erdogan said he wouldn’t be able to spend any time with Bolton because he was headed to Parliament to deliver a speech.
A meeting between Bolton and Erdogan was never confirmed, a U.S. official said, but administration officials had said one was expected.
Speaking before Erdogan's remarks to Parliament, Marquis said Bolton and Kalin had "a productive discussion" and had "identified further issues for dialogue."
Bolton’s comments about Turkey over the weekend during an interview with reporters traveling with him in Israel had drawn criticism from Turkish officials.
Trump announced Dec. 19 that all U.S. troops would immediately withdraw from Syria. The announcement, which shocked U.S. allies and members of Trump’s own administration, stemmed from a phone call with Erdogan in which the Turkish leader convinced the president to withdraw and said Turkey would take over the fight against ISIS.
U.S. officials have since tempered the timeline for withdrawal, saying there isn’t one, and Trump has said a drawdown would happen slowly. But Bolton’s comments Sunday to reporters in Israel marked the first time the U.S. put specific conditions on withdrawal and demanded an agreement from Turkey on the Kurds.
Erdogan said in his speech Tuesday that Turkey has completed preparations for a military operation in Syria. Turkey boasts NATO's second-largest military.
Dunford, Jeffrey and Turkey’s deputy foreign and defense ministers also attended Tuesday’s meeting with Bolton and Kalın.
Dunford remained in Turkey after Bolton leaves to continue discussions with Turkish officials about a way forward in Syria. Jeffrey plans to meet with the Syrian Kurds this week.
On Monday, Erdogan published an opinion article in The New York Times saying the Turkish government has “no argument with the Syrian Kurds.”
He called for a “stabilization force” in Syria that would be created by Turkey. To do so, Turkey would vet the Syrian Kurds who fought with the U.S. against ISIS and include those “with no links to terrorist organizations in the new stabilization force,” Erdogan wrote.
“Only a diverse body can serve all Syrian citizens and bring law and order to various parts of the country,” he wrote.
Bolton told Kalin the op-ed was wrong and offensive, the senior administration official said.
It’s unclear if Erdogan was directly addressing remarks made by Bolton over the weekend when he wrote: “Turkey intends to cooperate and coordinate our actions with our friends and allies.”
While Bolton told reporters Sunday that a U.S. withdrawal will be contingent on whether the White House can reach an agreement with Turkey on protecting the Kurds, he also said the time American troops will remain in Syria is not unlimited — adding “the primary point is we are going to withdraw from northeastern Syria.”
The national security adviser’s repeated caveat that the withdrawal is from northeastern Syria, not Syria overall, underscores a policy shift since Trump’s Dec. 19 announcement that all American forces would leave Syria.
It’s a reflection of U.S. plans to keep some troops at Al Tanf in southern Syria as a deterrent to Iran even after those in the northern part of the country exit.