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By Carol E. Lee
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not meet with U.S. national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday, while telegraphing a widening rift between the NATO allies that leaves the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw troops from Syria in limbo.
In a speech to parliament, Erdogan said that Bolton had made “serious mistake” in calling for a new condition for the U.S. exit from Syria. Bolton has been seeking assurances that Turkey wouldn’t attack Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies after American forces depart.
He said that Turkey would never compromise on the issue of the YPG Kurdish militia, which the U.S. has backed in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist organisation and part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.
Before his arrival in Ankara, Bolton said that no U.S. troops would leave northern Syria until Turkey agreed to not attack the Syrian Kurds. The demand, which Bolton said came from Trump, immediately drew criticism from Turkish officials.
Bolton concluded his visit to Turkey with more than two hours of discussions with officials Tuesday, but without meeting Erdogan.
National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said Erdogan called Bolton’s Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalın, during their meeting and told him to send his regards to Bolton. However, Erdogan said he wouldn’t be able to spend any time with Bolton because because he was headed to parliament to deliver a speech.
A meeting between Bolton and Erdogan was never confirmed, a U.S. official said, but administration officials had said one was expected.
Speaking before Erdogan’s remarks to parliament, Marquis said Bolton and Kalin had “a productive discussion” and had “identified further issues for dialogue.”
Bolton’s comments about Turkey over the weekend during an interview with reporters traveling with him in Israel had drawn criticism from Turkish officials.
Trump announced Dec. 19 that all U.S. troops would immediately withdraw from Syria. The announcement, which shocked U.S. allies and members of Trump’s own administration, stemmed from a phone call with Erdogan where the Turkish leader convinced the president to withdraw and said Turkey would take over the fight against ISIS.
U.S. officials have since tempered the timeline for withdrawal, saying there isn’t one, and Trump has said a drawdown would happen slowly. But Bolton’s comments Sunday to reporters in Israel marked the first time the U.S. put specific conditions on withdrawal and demanded an agreement from Turkey on the Kurds.
Erdogan said in his speech Tuesday that Turkey has completed preparations for a military operation in Syria. Turkey boasts NATO’s second-largest military.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Turkey’s deputy foreign and defense ministers also attended Tuesday’s meeting with Bolton and Kalın, as well as James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria and the coalition against ISIS.
Dunford is scheduled to remain in Turkey after Bolton leaves to continue discussions with Turkish officials about a way forward in Syria.
On Monday, Erdogan published an opinion article in the New York Times saying the Turkish government has “no argument with the Syrian Kurds.”
He called for a “stabilization force” in Syria that would be created by Turkey. To do so, Turkey would vet the Syrian Kurds who fought with the U.S. against ISIS and include those “with no links to terrorist organizations in the new stabilization force,” Erdogan wrote.
“Only a diverse body can serve all Syrian citizens and bring law and order to various parts of the country,” he wrote.
It’s unclear if he was directly addressing remarks made by Bolton over the weekend that when Erdogan wrote: “Turkey intends to cooperate and coordinate our actions with our friends and allies.”
While Bolton said a U.S. withdrawal will be contingent on whether the White House can reach an agreement with Turkey on protecting the Kurds, he also said the time American troops will remain in Syria is not unlimited — adding “the primary point is we are going to withdraw from northeastern Syria.”
The national security adviser’s repeated caveat that the withdraw is from northeastern Syria, not Syria overall, underscores a policy shift since Trump’s Dec. 19 announcement that all American forces would leave Syria.
Bolton has signaled the U.S. will keep some troop presence in southern Syria as a deterrent to Iran even after those in the northern part of the country exit.