Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the U.S. national security adviser of making "a very serious mistake" Tuesday by demanding that Ankara guarantee the safety of Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria before the U.S. withdraws its troops from the war-torn country.
"We cannot make any concessions in this regard," Erdogan said after John Bolton sought assurances of protection for Kurdish forces that fought alongside U.S. troops against the Islamic State group. The Kurds fear an assault by Turkey if the U.S. withdraws.
Turkey's presidential spokesman said Turkey would not seek permission from its allies to conduct a military offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters but was willing to coordinate operations. Erdogan said Ankara's preparations for a new military offensive against what he describes as terror groups in Syria are "to a large extent" complete.
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Bolton departed Turkey without meeting with Erdogan, with a spokesman for the U.S. official saying they were told Erdogan cited the local election season and a speech to parliament for not meeting with him.
Trump abruptly announced last month he intended to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, and the U.S. has sent mixed signals over how soon that would be accomplished. Bolton's trip to the Mideast was aimed at assuring allies it would not be done precipitously.
But Turkey's president spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters after talks with Bolton there is no slowdown in the timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Syria. He said U.S. officials have said during their discussions that the withdrawal could take place within "120 days."
Kalin said talks with Bolton focused on how the U.S. would collect the weapons that were given to Kurdish militia fighting Islamic States as well as the future of U.S. bases in Syria. He said he handed over two dossiers to Bolton — one on Turkish help to Kurdish populations in Iraq and Syria, the other on the Kurdish militias' "criminal activities and human rights violations."
A Bolton spokesman, Garrett Marquis, said in a statement that Bolton and Turkish officials "had a productive discussion of the President's decision to withdraw at a proper pace from Northeast Syria."
But Erdogan, for his part, said Bolton had "made a very serious mistake. Whoever thinks this way is also mistaken. We cannot make any concession in this regard and those involved in a terror corridor" in Syria would "receive the necessary punishment."
Trump's shifting timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria has left allies and other players in the region confused and jockeying for influence over a withdrawal strategy that appeared to be a work in progress.
Trump faced widespread criticism that he was abandoning the Kurds in the face of Turkish threats. Officials said at the time that although many details of the withdrawal had not yet been finalized, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.
After Bolton announced this week the U.S. pullout would not be as immediate as Trump had initially declared, U.S. allies were still seeking clarification from American diplomats.
Turkey insists its military actions are aimed at Kurdish fighters in Syria — the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, or YPG — whom it regards as terrorists, and not against the Kurdish people. That has been Ankara longtime position and Turkey has rejected any role for Kurdish fighters in restoring peace to the war-torn region.
Bolton had said the protection of U.S. allies in Syria, including the YPG, was among "the objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal" of U.S. forces.
Trump had also said that Turkey would step up the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria, but Bolton said Sunday U.S. troops will eliminate what remains of ISIS there.
Trump on Monday struck back at the perception that his intentions in Syria had changed. "No different from my original statements, 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!....." he said in a tweet.
The Pentagon said Monday no U.S. troops have withdrawn from Syria yet, but added that there is an "approved framework" for withdrawal.
Bolton maintained there is no fixed timetable for completing the drawdown, but insisted it was not an indefinite commitment to the region. Still, some 200 U.S. troops will remain in the vicinity of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region, he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, has begun an eight-nation trip of the Middle East. Both he and Bolton are seeking input and support for the specifics of the withdrawal plan, according to one official, who said U.S. partners were eager for details.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser, Bassem Mroue, Robert Burns and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.