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Trump Syria withdraw plan scuttled by Erdogan Kurd offensive plan

January 9, 2019

The fate of Kurds whom the U.S. relied upon to battle the Islamic State continued to roil President Trump’s hope for a Syria troop pullout Tuesday, with Turkey’s leader rejecting outright Washington’s demand that it hold back on attacking Kurdish forces after American forces depart.

In a sharp rebuke to National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, who spent the day in Turkey trying to negotiate protections for the Kurds, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he “cannot make any concessions” as his military prepares for a major offensive against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.

Mr. Erdogan did not find time to meet with Mr. Bolton during his stay and told lawmakers that Mr. Trump’s senior security adviser made a “serious mistake” in seeking guarantees about Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds.

As Mr. Erdogan talked tough, a top Syrian Kurdish official said his fighters were preparing for a clash with Turkish forces after U.S. troops leave Syria.

“We will be ready,” Shahoz Hasan, co-chair of the largest Kurdish group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which worked closely with U.S. troops in Syria to roll back the Islamic State.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurds allies of Kurdish separatists inside Turkey who have long battled the central government in Ankara. Mr. Erdogan warns that a Kurdish-run enclave on the Syrian side of the border would be a base for separatist violence inside Turkey.

States across the region are dealing with the fallout from Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement last month that the U.S. would withdraw 2,000 mostly special operations forces from Syria. They also are confused by contradictory accounts from Mr. Trump and his aides on the timing and conditions of the withdrawal.

Turkey initially celebrated the planned U.S. withdrawal and announced that it would “fill the void” left by U.S. troops to eliminate remaining Islamic State elements in Syria, but frustration has mounted in Ankara since Mr. Bolton appeared to set significant new conditions for the pullout during a weekend trip to Israel.

Mr. Bolton said there is no specific timetable for the pullout because Washington is intent on ensuring the Islamic State’s full defeat and protecting Syria’s Kurds from a looming assault by Turkey.

Pompeo mission

Amid the confusion over Syria, the Trump administration was ramping up a major diplomatic push to assure allies across the Middle East of America’s staying power and rallying support against Iran.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Jordan on Tuesday to start an eight-nation tour of the region.

Mr. Pompeo’s stops in Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman are meant to forge stronger unity among Arab powers behind the administration’s regional strategy in the wake of Islamic State’s defeat.

A key goal of the Pompeo trip is to resolve a nearly 2-year-old diplomatic standoff among several Arab powers. The rift pits Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt against Qatar over claims that it is too closely aligned with Iran, supports the Muslim Brotherhood and turns a blind eye on terrorism financing activities.

Mr. Pompeo’s mission got off to a rocky start with the sudden departure of a top administration envoy to the region. Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general and former head of U.S. Central Command whom Mr. Trump tapped last year to help resolve the Qatar dispute, told CBS News that he was resigning “because of the unwillingness of the regional leaders” to support U.S. mediation efforts.

A State Department spokesman downplayed the resignation by saying Mr. Zinni made progress in promoting Mr. Trump’s idea for an “Arab NATO” to counter Iran.

The question now is whether Mr. Pompeo can bring the idea to life over the coming week. The secretary of state reportedly hopes in the months ahead to host a summit of regional leaders on the new alliance in New York even if the dispute over Qatar remains unresolved.

There were indications that he made progress in his first stop. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi suggested after meeting with Mr. Pompeo that Amman stands with Mr. Trump on the need to confront Iran.

“We all have problems with Iran’s expansionist policies in the region,” Mr. Safadi said at a joint press conference with the secretary of state. “We all want to make sure that whatever threat there is mitigated.”

Power vacuum

Mr. Pompeo has challenged the notion that Mr. Trump’s Syria pullout will undercut U.S. leverage in the region though analysts say Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon are poised to fill part of the vacuum left by the departing American forces.

There were conflicting reports on whether Mr. Erdogan openly snubbed Mr. Bolton by canceling a meeting with him in Ankara. Turkish news outlets said Mr. Erdogan had refused to meet with Mr. Bolton, but a spokesman for the national security adviser suggested that the meeting may not have been confirmed.

Spokesman Garrett Marquis said Mr. Bolton had a “productive discussion” with his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, on the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

It was clear, however, that Mr. Bolton got no assurances on the future of Kurdish allies in Syria. Within hours of the meeting, Mr. Erdogan made international headlines by saying that Turkish preparations for a military offensive against terrorist groups in Syria are “to a large extent” complete.

On Monday, Mr. Erdogan did not hold back in his remarks to the Turkish parliament on his unhappiness with U.S. calls for restraint.

“Bolton’s remarks in Israel are not acceptable. It is not possible for me to swallow this,” the Turkish president said, according to a translation by CNN. “If he thinks that way, he is in a big mistake. We will not compromise.”

Syrian Kurdish leaders, alarmed by Mr. Trump’s planned pullout, are reportedly pursuing a Russia-mediated surrender or protection deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad if Washington abandons them.

Reuters reported last week that a Kurdish-led administration running much of northern Syria presented a road map for an agreement with the Assad government during recent meetings in Russia.

In meetings with Turkish officials Tuesday, Mr. Bolton was joined by Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who will remain for additional meetings with Turkish military officials, as well as Jim Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s special representative for Syrian engagement and the newly named American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition.

U.S. officials said Mr. Jeffrey is slated to travel from Turkey into Syria to reassure the Kurdish fighters that they are not being abandoned.

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