Chaotic Haggling Follows Trump’s Syria Withdrawal Plan

John R. Bolton
Former Ambassador John R. Bolton speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Bolton is now Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

National Security Adviser John Bolton received a cold shoulder in Turkey on Tuesday as he attempted to reduce the impact of President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw from Syria.

The diplomatic confrontation appeared to reinforce old fault lines between NATO’s largest and second-largest armies. Yet it also highlighted new policy differences among contending forces inside each of the parties. Attempts to mitigate the extent of Russia’s and Iran’s victory in Syria appear central to the strategy of both.

Bolton, who was snubbed and reprimanded by Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for having “made a serious mistake,” presented five principles in talks with Turkish officials. While the exact contents of those talks have not been made public, according to widespread media reports they included demands that Turkey refrain from attacking America’s Kurdish allies in Syria and ensure that the Islamic State is defeated. In addition, the US wants Turkey to guarantee the protection of civilians as well as the interests of American regional allies, mainly Israel.

“Bolton’s 5 principles should’ve been the starting point for negotiations for a withdrawal back in April and presented to Ankara as the starting point for talks when this whole thing began, instead of ceding this space to Russia and hanging SDF [Syrian Kurdish force] out to dry,” tweeted Aaron Stein, the Middle East program director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “There was — and remains — a way to take advantage of the uncertainty amongst foes in Syria. But that requires accepting the hard truth that the US is leaving.”

While there are both opportunities and risks for the US going forward, there are simply too many moving parts to make accurate predictions right now in a situation that observers have alternately compared to “10-dimensional chess or mere disarray.” Here are the most recent highlights, largely anticipated by WhoWhatWhy two weeks ago:

  • Trump’s withdrawal plan has paved the way for Syrian President Bashar Assad to consolidate his victory in the brutal seven-year civil war. In the last days of 2018, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain announced that they would reopen their embassies in Damascus, signaling the beginning of the end of Assad’s regional and international isolation. Egypt and the Arab League have made noises to the effect that they might normalize relations with Syria as well.
  • Different camps have apparently emerged inside the US administration: according to a report in Al-Monitor, one is headed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who insists on a swift departure of US troops, and another is headed by Bolton, who is seeking to draw out and dilute the withdrawal.
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“The real danger of a Syria withdrawal for the Bolton crowd is that it will force the US to reopen relations with the Assad government, especially on counter-terrorism & ISIS,” tweeted Joshua Landis, a prominent Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “It would be final blow to Washington’s anti-Syria & anti-Iran policy. It will be a blow to Israel. For it would mean that the world will slowly accept Iran’s new security architecture for the northern Middle East as the best form of counter-terrorism and security.”

Pompeo, on the other hand, reportedly made conciliatory statements on Wednesday, acknowledging Turkey’s concerns about the Kurds.

  • Different camps also seemed to be emerging inside Turkey’s military and government. One of Turkey’s most prominent generals, who had been expected to lead an impending Turkish attack on the US-allied Syrian Kurds (something that triggered Trump’s decision to withdraw), was abruptly reassigned on December 31. General Metin Temel reportedly nursed strong suspicions toward the US — and his removal thus appears sharply at odds with the treatment Bolton subsequently received in Ankara.
  • Turkish-aligned rebel forces in Syria have meanwhile suffered a series of reverses at the hands of radical jihadists in Idlib province, a separate theater from the Kurdish-occupied northeast where Turkey was preparing to intervene. Ankara now faces pressure to launch an operation there as well — a conundrum that WhoWhatWhy also anticipated.
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We are following the situation closely. Stay tuned.

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