“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem before heading to Turkey, where he will join the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”
Those conditions, he said, included defeating what’s left of IS in Syria and protecting Kurdish militias who have fought alongside US troops against the extremist group.
Bolton’s comments were the first public confirmation that the drawdown has been put on ice.
Trump had faced widespread criticism from allies over the unexpected decision, announced in mid-December, that he was pulling all 2000 US troops out of Syria.
Officials said at the time that although many details of the withdrawal had not yet been finalised, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.
“We are pulling back in Syria,” Trump reiterated on Sunday at the White House, adding that he had never publicly given a timetable for withdrawal. “We’re going to be removing our troops.”
Trump’s move, which led to the resignation of US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, has raised fears over clearing the way for a Turkish assault on the Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
Bolton said the US would insist that its Kurdish allies in Syria were protected from any planned Turkish offensive – a warning he was expected to deliver to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this week.
“We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States,” Bolton said. He said that in upcoming meetings with Turkish officials he will seek “to find out what their objectives and capabilities are and that remains uncertain.”
Bolton said the US has asked the Kurds to “stand fast now” and refrain from seeking protection from Russia or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “I think they know who their friends are,” he added, speaking of the Kurds.
Jim Jeffrey, the special representative for Syrian engagement and the newly named American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition, is to travel to Syria this coming week in an effort to reassure the Kurdish fighters that they are not being abandoned, Bolton said.
Turkey’s presidential spokesman called allegations that his country planned to attack the US-allied Kurds in Syria “irrational” and said Turkey was fighting terrorism for national security.
In comments carried by the official Anadolu news agency, Ibrahim Kalin said the Kurdish fighters oppressed Syrian Kurds and pursued a separatist agenda under the guise of fighting IS.
“That a terror organisation cannot be allied with the US is self-evident,” he said.
Bolton said US troops would remain at the critical area of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region. He defended the legal basis for the deployment, saying it’s justified by the President’s constitutional authority.
The US is also seeking a “satisfactory disposition” for roughly 800 IS prisoners held by the US-backed Syrian opposition, Bolton said, adding talks were ongoing with European and regional partners about the issue.
Bolton was to have dinner with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Sunday to discuss the pace of the US drawdown, American troop levels in the region, and the US commitment to push back on Iranian regional expansionism.
Bolton was expected to explain that some US troops based in Syria to fight IS would shift to Iraq with the same mission and that the al-Tanf base would remain.
He also was due to convey the message that the United States was “very supportive” of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, according to a senior administration official.
Bolton on Sunday also toured the ancient tunnels beneath the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. He watched a virtual reality tour of the historic site and dined there with his Israeli equivalent, as well as US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer.
American officials typically avoid holding official meetings in parts of east Jerusalem, which is contested between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump, however, also toured the area in a previous visit.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 war, a move not recognised by most of the international community. Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.