Erdogan says only Turkey has power to ‘shoulder the heavy burden’ of Syria

Erdogan says only Turkey has power to ‘shoulder the heavy burden’ of Syria

In op-ed for The New York Times ahead of Bolton meeting, president proposes stabilization force while restating position that Kurdish Peoples Protection Units is a terrorist group

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during the Presidential Culture and Arts Grand Awards ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on December 19, 2018. (Adem Altan/AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during the Presidential Culture and Arts Grand Awards ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on December 19, 2018. (Adem Altan/AFP)

In an op-ed published by The New York Times on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria and said that Turkey “is the only country with the power and commitment” to protect the interests of Washington, the international community and the Syrian people.

In the opinion piece published ahead of Erdogan’s meeting with US national security adviser John Bolton, the Turkish president cautioned that the US pullout “must be planned carefully and performed in cooperation with the right partners,” before noting that Turkey, with NATO’s second largest standing army, was best suited to the task.

“Turkey is committed to defeating the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria,” Erdogan wrote, before clarifying that “militarily speaking, the so-called Islamic State has been defeated in Syria. Yet we are deeply concerned that some outside powers may use the organization’s remnants as an excuse to meddle in Syria’s internal affairs.”

Erdogan said coalition operations in Raqqa and Mosul were “carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties,” before detailing his military and security forces’ experience with fighting IS.

In this Thursday, April 5, 2018 photo, rubble of buildings line a street that was damaged during fighting between US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria.(AP/Hussein Malla)

The Turkish president also referred to the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, or YPG, as a terrorist group, Turkey’s longtime position, and rejected any role for Kurdish fighters in restoring peace to the war-torn region.

Erdogan proposed in his op-ed to stand up a “stabilization force featuring fighters from all parts of Syrian society” to safeguard northeast Syria once American troops leave, though he said an “intensive vetting process” will exclude fighters with “links to terrorist organizations,” which in his government’s view includes the YPG.

“Turkey is volunteering to shoulder this heavy burden at a critical time in history. We are counting on the international community to stand with us,” Erdogan concludes.

Bolton did not immediately respond to the op-ed, but such an offer would appear unlikely to be acceptable to the US. Bolton had said the protection of US allies in Syria, including the YPG, was among “the objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal” of US forces.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with the US National Security Adviser John Bolton, during a statement to the media follow their meeting in Jerusalem on January 6, 2019. (Oded Balilty / POOL / AFP)

Trump’s shifting timetable for pulling US 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.

Israeli officials have expressed alarm that a swift withdrawal could enable Iran to expand its influence and presence in Syria, wracked by a years-long civil war and Islamic State militancy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked Trump to stagger the US withdrawal over a lengthy period of time, rather than carry out an immediate pullout.

One day after White House national security adviser John Bolton announced the US pullout would not be as immediate as Trump had initially declared, US allies on Monday sought clarification from American diplomats. The Kurds, who have fought alongside US forces against the Islamic State group and fear an assault by Turkey if the US withdraws, were still asking publicly for an explanation from Washington.

Bolton said the US would first seek assurances from Turkey that it would not harm the Kurds — for the first time adding a “condition” to the withdrawal. He arrived Monday in Turkey to seek those guarantees from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but there was little reason for optimism.

Erdogan’s op-ed has set up a contentious day of diplomacy for Bolton, after his trip to Jerusalem, and underscored the destabilizing impact of Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip approach to foreign policy. Trump’s spur-of-the-moment withdrawal came with no details, leaving allies scrambling for answers and aides crafting a strategy that can satisfy all the players, including Trump.

In this photo from April 28, 2017, US forces, accompanied by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, drive their armored vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah, on the border with Turkey. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Trump discussed Syria during a phone call on Monday with French President Emmanuel Macron, who had panned Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops and warned it could have dangerous consequences. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said they discussed the commitment of their two countries “to the destruction of ISIS as well as plans for a strong, deliberate, and coordinated withdrawal of US troops from Syria.”

Bolton said Sunday, “We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States.” Trump has made clear that he would not allow Turkey to kill Kurds, Bolton added. “That’s what the president said, the ones that fought with us.”

Speaking to The Associated Press from northern Syria on Monday, a Syrian Kurdish official said the Kurds have not been informed of any change in the U.S. position and were in the dark about Bolton’s latest comments.

“We have not been formally or directly notified, all what we heard were media statements,” Badran Ciya Kurd said.

Kurdish officials have held conversations with Moscow and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government about protection, but Bolton called on them to “stand fast now.”

Bolton’s pronouncements were the first public confirmation from the administration that the pace of the drawdown had changed since Trump’s announcement in mid-December that US troops are “coming back now.” Trump faced widespread criticism from allies about his decision, including 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.

Syrian-Kurds demonstrate in Qamishli against Turkish-led fighters seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN)

At the time, Trump had also said that Turkey would step up the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria, but Bolton said Sunday US troops will eliminate what remains of IS as another “condition” to northeastern Syria.

Trump on Monday struck back to 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.

While Sanders said last month the administration had “started returning United States troops home,” the Pentagon said Monday no US 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 US troops will remain in the vicinity of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region, he said.

According to an NBC report on Friday, a senior official said troops could remain in al-Tanf to reassure Jerusalem amid concerns that America’s absence would open the door for Tehran to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.

The US’s al-Tanf military outpost in southern Syria, Oct. 22, 2018. (AP/Lolita Baldor)

In meetings with Turkish officials Tuesday, Bolton said he will seek “to find out what their objectives and capabilities are and that remains uncertain.”

He will be joined by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who will remain in Turkey for additional meetings with Turkish military officials, as well as Jim Jeffrey, the special representative for Syrian engagement and the newly named American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition. Jeffrey will travel from Turkey into Syria to reassure the Kurdish fighters that they are not being abandoned, Bolton said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Washington on Monday for 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 US partners were eager for details.

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