Saturday, March 23rd, 2019

Bolton counters Trump on fast US troops pullout from Syria

The remarks also reflected the disarray that has surrounded the president’s decision, which took his staff and foreign allies by surprise and drew objections from the Pentagon that it was logistically impossible and strategically unwise. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigned within hours of the announcement, and the Pentagon chief of staff, Kevin Sweeney, said Saturday evening that he was also leaving.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with US National Security Adviser John Bolton, during a joint statement to the media follow their meeting, in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit:AP

While Bolton said on Sunday that he expected US forces to eventually leave north-eastern Syria, where most of the 2000 troops in the country are based for the mission against the Islamic State, he began to lay out an argument for keeping some troops at a garrison in the south-east that is used to monitor the flow of Iranian arms and soldiers. In September, three months before Trump’s announcement, Bolton had declared that the United States would remain in Syria as long as Iranians were on the ground there.

Asked on CBS News’”Face the Nation” if Bolton’s comments amounted to an admission that Trump had made a mistake, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham,  who at times has been one of the president’s staunchest supporters, said, “This is the reality setting in that you’ve got to plan this out.”

Graham, who described the dangers of making the announcement first and then considering the longer-term implications, added, “The president is slowing down and is re-evaluating his policies in light of those three objectives: Don’t let Iran get the oil fields, don’t let the Turks slaughter the Kurds, and don’t let ISIS come back.”

US forces take up positions on the outskirts of the Syrian town, Manbij in Aleppo province, Syria, in 2017.Credit:AP

The move to reverse course on Trump’s promised swift withdrawal picked up in recent days, even as Bolton worked to avoid openly confronting the president the way Mattis did. On Friday, in a briefing for reporters about a forthcoming trip to the Middle East by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a senior State Department official said there was no fixed timetable for the US withdrawal.

Asked about the shifting timeline Sunday as he left the White House for meetings about border security at Camp David, Trump told reporters that he had “never said we were doing it that quickly”. In a video on the evening of his announcement in December, he had said that “our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now”, though he later extended that to four months.

Now, the four-month schedule appears highly in doubt. The conditions Bolton described, including the complete defeat of the Islamic State and the guarantees from Turkey, could easily stretch out.

Bolton will meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on Tuesday, who argued to Trump in a phone call last month that the Islamic State had been defeated, and that US troops were therefore no longer needed to aid Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the Kurdish forces a terrorist body bent on carving out a separate nation.

Turkish and US troops conduct joint patrols around the Syrian town of Manbij, in November as part of an agreement that aimed to ease tensions between the two NATO allies. .Credit:AP

Bolton’s comments seemed to expand on a classified memo he wrote to Cabinet officials on December 24 that outlined a strategy for Turkish troops to replace the roughly 2000 US troops conducting counter-terrorism operations against the Islamic State in north-eastern Syria, according to two Defence Department officials.


Bolton’s memo came after Trump and Erdogan spoke by phone on December 23. After that conversation, Trump tweeted: “I just had a long and productive call with President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey. We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home.”

Bolton also wrote in the memo, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, that the administration’s objectives in Syria remained consistent. Those goals have included routing the Islamic State group from its last enclaves in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, ousting Iranian-commanded forces and pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the country’s civil war.

Pentagon officials almost immediately expressed scepticism that the Turkish military, which has struggled to carry out limited operations along its border with Syria in the past two years, could execute expansive counter-terrorism operations deeper into Syria, toward the border with Iraq. Moreover, US military planners said any Turkish movements into north-eastern Syria would lead to clashes with the Syrian Kurdish-Arab coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

New York Times