Bolton arrives in Turkey amid tensions over U.S. withdrawal from Syria

The Trump administration is seeking assurances that Turkey will not attack Kurds after U.S. troops leave.
Image: National security adviser John Bolton talks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington
National Security Advisor John Bolton talks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.Cliff Owen / AP file

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By Carol E. Lee

ANKARA — National security adviser John Bolton arrived in Turkey Monday for what are expected to be contentious talks with government officials about the future of the U.S. military involvement in Syria.

Uncertainty surrounded an anticipated meeting on Tuesday between Bolton and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as tensions flared between Washington and Ankara.

Before arriving in Turkey, Bolton previewed the message he plans to deliver to Erdogan: President Donald Trump won’t withdraw American troops from northern Syria until Turkey agrees not to attack the Syrian Kurds who have been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.

The demand, which Bolton said came from Trump, followed remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said the U.S. would make sure Turkey doesn’t "slaughter" the Kurds after a U.S. withdrawal.

Turkish officials have criticized the suggestion that the government would target Syrian Kurds. And on Monday Erdogan published an op-ed in the New York Times saying Trump made the right call to withdraw from Syria and that the Turkish government has "no argument with the Syrian Kurds."

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The Turkish leader 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.

It’s unclear if Erdogan was directly addressing remarks made by Bolton when he wrote: "Turkey intends to cooperate and coordinate our actions with our friends and allies."

Bolton told reporters over the weekend that the White House doesn’t "think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States."

Bolton’s discussions with Turkish officials are broadly aimed at trying to reach a consensus about the outlines of a way forward in Syria after a withdrawal of U.S. forces that prevents a resurgence of ISIS.

"Part of what we want to see is no vacuum in northeast Syria that malign forces can take advantage of, so that will be a big part of discussions with the Turks," Bolton said before flying to Turkey from Israel.

The Turkey visit is among the most critical of a series of stops in the region that Bolton and Pompeo are making to try to contain the fallout from Trump’s abrupt announcement last month that he was immediately withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria.

Bolton said Trump made clear to Erdogan in recent conversations that he won’t withdraw troops from Syria until the Turkish leader guarantees he won’t use their departure to go after the Syrian Kurds.

While he said a U.S. withdrawal will be contingent on whether the White House can reach an agreement with Turkey on protecting the Kurds, Bolton also said the time American troops will remain in Syria is not unlimitedThe primary point is we are going to withdraw from northeastern Syria," Bolton said.

While Bolton described his discussions with Turkish officials as among the most important the U.S. is having with foreign governments about Syria, he does not anticipate the talks will be finished before he leaves Ankara Tuesday.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford will remain in Turkey to continue the discussions. Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy for Syria and the ISIS coalition also is joining Bolton in Ankara and will meet with the Kurdish opposition in Syria this week.