National security adviser John Bolton left here in frustration Tuesday, with the U.S. and Turkey locked in a political standoff that threatens President Donald Trump’s plans for a troop withdrawal from Syria.
Bolton left Turkey without seeing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then publicly called earlier comments the top Trump aide had made about Turkey’s role in neighboring Syria a “serious mistake.”
It was a rocky conclusion to Bolton’s overseas trip, which he undertook to explain Trump’s plans for Syria to key U.S. allies. The contretemps also illustrated the risk for Bolton in conducting diplomacy abroad — a role that is not traditionally part of a national security adviser’s portfolio, but one he seems to relish.
On one of several trips abroad he has taken since assuming his job last April, Bolton also found himself casting an eye back home, denouncing media reports suggesting that he and the president were on different pages when it comes to Syria policy.
Bolton, traveling in a U.S. government 757 jet often used by Vice President Mike Pence, left Turkey after Erdogan skipped an anticipated meeting with the Trump adviser and criticized him in a speech to his parliament. The Turkish leader is furious over Bolton’s insistence that U.S. forces would remain in Syria until his country agreed not to attack Kurdish forces in Syria who have fought alongside American troops against the Islamic State.
Bolton had hoped to reach a consensus with Erdogan over a roadmap for a U.S. troop withdrawal which would allow the U.S. to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, while also containing Iran’s military presence in Syria.
But Washington and Ankara are increasingly butting heads over whether and how to protect Syria’s Kurdish fighters after U.S. troops leave.
Despite the sour reception from Erdogan, officials say Bolton’s visit here was worthwhile: He met for more than two hours with his counterpart, Turkish national security adviser Ibrahim Kalin, and the country’s deputy defense and foreign ministers.
According to a U.S. official in that meeting, Bolton presented the Turks with a document listing terms governing the pullout of American forces in a “deliberate, orderly and strong manner.” He also committed to keep some troops at the al-Tanf garrison in southeast Syria near the Jordanian border, which is used to monitor the flow of Iranian arms and forces. And he said the U.S. would help secure the airspace over northeast Syria.
But in language clearly alluding to the long-oppressed Kurds, Bolton added that the United States wanted “the protection of all civilians, particularly local minority populations.”
“The United States opposes any mistreatment of opposition forces who fought with us against ISIS,” the document said.
In Jerusalem on Sunday, Bolton had previewed that tough message, which he planned to deliver directly to Erdogan: President Trump would not pull out the troops until Turkey guaranteed it would not — in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — “slaughter the Kurds.”
That stance angered Erdogan, who, hours before Bolton’s arrival, published an op-ed in the New York Times insisting his government had “no argument with the Syrian Kurds,” although Ergodan went on to brand Turkey’s Y.P.G. militia as a “terrorist” group that could have no political role in Syria’s future.
Erdogan said that Trump made the right call to withdraw from Syria and proposed a “stabilization force” for Syria, which he said Turkey would stand up and vet. He promised to “cooperate with our actions with our friends and allies.”