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Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, Donald Trump scramble to get Syria troop withdrawal story straight

January 8, 2019

The Trump administration scrambled Monday to straighten out the messaging of its Middle East policy and assure allies of America’s staying power amid confusion in the region over the scope and pace of the president’s plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria.

With National Security Adviser John R. Bolton in Turkey and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo beginning an eight-nation tour of the region Tuesday, Mr. Trump sought to quell concern by asserting that U.S. troops will pull out “at a proper pace” and in a “prudent” fashion.

Mr. Trump made the comments via Twitter a day after Mr. Bolton appeared to directly contradict him during a visit to Israel, putting new caveats on the withdrawal of 2,000 mostly U.S. special operations forces in Syria and suggesting the deployment may not be ending anytime soon.

To the contrary, there is no specific timetable for the pullout, said Mr. Bolton, who insisted it will depend on conditions, including the full defeat of Islamic State factions in Syria and guarantees from Turkey about the safety of Syrian Kurds, who have borne the brunt of the U.S.-backed ground war against the terrorist group over the past several years.

But uncertainty in Washington and in Middle East capitals continued to swirl Monday night even as Mr. Bolton reportedly pressed the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a clear and public promise that Turkish forces won’t seize on the vacuum of an American pullout to attack the Kurds in Syria.

Mr. Erdogan, who sees the Syrian Kurds as allies of Kurdish separatists inside Turkey whom Ankara has long battled, said the U.S. withdrawal should be orderly and that Turkey should be allowed to handle the situation.

The U.S. withdrawal from Syria must be planned carefully and performed in cooperation with the right partners to protect the interests of Washington, the international community and the Syrian people, Mr. Erdogan said.

“Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest standing army, is the only country with the power and commitment to perform that task ...,” he wrote in an op-ed posted by The New York Times Monday. “Turkey is volunteering to shoulder this heavy burden at a critical time in history.”

Badran Jia Kurd, a key Syrian Kurdish official, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the Kurds had not been informed of any change in the U.S. position on withdrawing troops and were seeking clarification of Mr. Bolton’s comments. The issue could be a matter of life or death for the stateless Kurds, who are rumored to be pursuing a surrender or protection deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad if Washington abandons them.

Many analysts, including from Washington’s conservative foreign policy ranks, have criticized Mr. Trump’s abrupt Syria withdrawal announcement and its confusing aftermath. They warn of the dangers that can spiral when a president and his top advisers appear to deliver conflicting messages.

“Major policy changes, like the Syrian withdrawal announcement, need to be coordinated much better, not only within the U.S. government but also with U.S. allies,” said James Phillips, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs with The Heritage Foundation.

“President Trump developed a decisive policymaking style based on his own ‘gut’ feelings, as the leader of a family-owned business enterprise,” Mr. Phillips told The Washington Times. “This can be very disruptive when applied to U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, where policy changes on one issue can have unintended consequences on several other issues.”

‘Proper pace’

Mr. Trump insists there is no disagreement, only hype generated by mainstream U.S. media outlets that are eager to exploit any appearance of disorder within his administration. The president rejected reports Monday that his administration was flip-flopping on the Syrian pullout.

“We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” Mr. Trump tweeted, saying the timetable is “no different from my original statements.”

But Mr. Trump’s efforts to clarify the policy seemed only to embolden his critics.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, said Monday that the president ”[makes] decisions like a 4-year-old.”

“He operates on whims and emotions. The way he’s going about this is a disaster for all involved,” Mr. Smith told CNN. “At some point, the president is going to have to take a briefing or read a book if he’s going to understand what’s going on.”

Military analysts said Monday that if Mr. Trump does order a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, then they could all be out before the president delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 29.

“We can get them out of there in a few days,” retired Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, who was part of the U.S. military command that oversaw the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, said in an interview.

“We can get out of there in a week, if push came to shove,” said Mr. Spoehr, now director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

But Mr. Bolton’s trip, which included a weekend stop to deal with concerns in Israel, indicated that a quick and easy pullout is not in the cards.

Iran concerns

Mr. Trump has triggered frustration among some foreign policy neoconservatives, who argue that a sustained U.S. troop presence is critical to the administration’s stated policy of confronting Iran-backed proxy militias such as Hezbollah the Lebanon-based group whose operations have grown inside Syria in recent years.

The president stirred confusion last week when he commented during a lengthy Cabinet meeting that Iran already “can do what they want” in Syria. He quickly moved on without clarifying, but Israeli media reported that the government was shocked by the comment.

Mr. Pompeo also sought Monday to tamp down concerns that Iran stood to gain in Syria from Mr. Trump’s pullout, claiming ahead of his own trip to the region that the Syria drawdown won’t alter the administration’s growing push to curb Tehran’s influence and proxy operations.

“There’s no change in our counter-Iran strategy,” the secretary of state told CNBC in an interview. He described the impending troop pullout as a “change of tactics” that won’t diminish the U.S. commitment “to the defeat of the [Islamic State] caliphate” or destroy the terrorist group globally.

Mr. Pompeo also expressed confidence that Turkey can be trusted not to turn against U.S.-backed Kurds in Syria. He said Turkish officials have given assurances “that the folks that we’d fought with that assisted us in the counter-ISIS campaign would be protected.”

Senior State Department officials said Mr. Pompeo’s trip will focus on shoring up regional alliances challenged by confusion over the Syria pullout and other sticky developments, including the ongoing humanitarian crisis and war in Yemen and the October killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

A main theme of the trip, which will include stops in Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman, will be to convey the message that “the United States is not leaving the Middle East,” one senior official told reporters on background.

In addition to pushing for an end to the nearly 2-year-old diplomatic standoff among Gulf Arab nations, the official said, Mr. Pompeo hopes to rally officials across the region to support the administration’s effort to isolate the government of Iran.

“The secretary will continue his work on galvanizing our regional partners and allies to counter the regime’s destabilizing activities,” the official said.

Mr. Pompeo is scheduled to give a major speech this week in Cairo about “America as a force for good in the region,” the State Department said.

⦁ Dave Boyer, Carlo Muoz and David Sands contributed to this report.

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