The pullout of U.S. troops from Syria announced by President Trump before the holiday season was initially expected to be completed within weeks, but the timetable has slowed as the president acceded to requests from aides, allies and members of Congress for a more orderly drawdown.
Earlier this week, the US National Security Advisor John Bolton met with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other officials before traveling to Turkey. Israeli officials have expressed alarm that a withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 troops could enable Iran to expand its influence and presence in Syria, wracked by a years-long civil war and the Islamic State’s terror machine.
Trump’s move has raised fears about clearing the way for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in Syria who have fought alongside American troops against ISIS extremists. Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
A Trump administration official told reporters traveling with Bolton that the National Security Advisor would be discussing the pace of the drawdown, as well as American troop levels in the region. Bolton explained that some U.S. troops based in Syria to fight ISIS will now shift to Iraq with the same mission and that some American forces may remain at a key military outpost in al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region.
Bolton conveyed the message that the United States will be “very supportive” of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bolton warned Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, not to use the U.S. drawdown as a pretext to use chemical weapons against Syrians, saying there is “no change” to the U.S. position that their use is a “red line.” Trump has twice carried out airstrikes in Syria in response to apparent chemical attacks, with the intention of deterring Assad.
“We’ve tried twice through the use of military force to demonstrate to the Assad regime the use of chemical weapons is not acceptable,” Bolton said. “And if they don’t heed the lessons of those two strikes, the next one will be more telling.”
Trump’s announcement about the intended troop withdrawal was greeted by surprise and condemnation from many U.S. lawmakers and allies and prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the U.S. special envoy for the anti-IS coalition in protest.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is following Bolton to the Mideast this coming week for an eight-country tour of Arab allies to shore up support for the administration’s partners in the region.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu asked Bolton for Washington’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Netanyahu stressed Israel’s right over the Golan Heights at a joint press conference with Bolton, a day after the latter arrived in Israel, according to a report on Ynet News.
The Golan Heights is the area captured from Syria and liberated by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. It is territory which Israel effectively annexed in 1981.
Netanyahu said that he would join Bolton on a trip to the Golan Heights. “It is tremendously important for our security. When you are there, you’ll be able to understand perfectly why we will never leave the Golan Heights and why it is important that all countries recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights…Welcome friend,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu turned to Bolton, and thanked Washington for its unequivocal support of Israel.
“Your visit has given us an opportunity to do two things,” Netanyahu said. “First, it has given us an opportunity to thank the Trump administration for their extraordinary support. Secondly, the president decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the embassy to Jerusalem—a historic decision which we welcome.”
“Third, you’ve unequivocally backed Israel at the United Nations, which is deeply appreciated by Israelis around the world. You have backed both in words and deeds Israel’s right to defend itself,” he added.
“We now have the best US-Israeli relationship in our history,” Bolton said during the joint press conference with Netanyahu. He also said that Washington is “determined” to keep it that way because the two nations need a “strong bond” and “strong leadership” in increasingly tumultuous times for security.
Bolton added: “We’ve got the continuing threat of Iran’s quest for deliverable nuclear deal, and despite getting out of the Iranian nuclear deal and despite the sanctions, we have little doubt that Iran is strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons, United States and Israel are strategically committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.”
Washington would do its best to provide security to Israel and its other “friends in the region,” Bolton told Netanyahu. “I would just say to any nation whether in this region or not in this region that has any doubt about America’s support for Israel’s self-defense: you’d better think about it again,” he said.
Bolton also raised US concerns over China’s creeping role in Israel’s critical infrastructure, particularly its upcoming management of Haifa Port, a frequent dock for the US Sixth Fleet, according to a Jerusalem Post report.
Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, senior Israeli officials told the JPost recently that they are aware of Washington’s concerns and are working to address them, according to the JPost report.
“The State of Israel is dealing with all aspects connected to the establishment and management of infrastructure by foreign companies in Israel,” Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who pioneered the project and is also a member of the security cabinet, said.
Israeli officials have also confirmed that the government is reviewing how to ensure that Chinese construction and management of the port does not adversely impact ties with the US. The Americans are said to be concerned that China will use the port to improve its standing in the Middle East and potentially gather intelligence on US interests.
The US has recently assured Tel Aviv of its continuous support. Less than a week ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also reaffirmed to Netanyahu that the US would still stand by Israel’s side and its commitment to the “protection” of the Jewish State remains unchanged despite its planned pullout from the neighboring Syria.
Joining Bolton in Turkey was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. In meetings with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other officials, they are expected to warn against an offensive targeting the Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called off a planned meeting with Bolton on Tuesday after the US national security advisor called on Turkey to avoid harming Kurds in Syria, according to a World Israel News report.
The American request was presented in writing to the Turks. It called for Turkey to involve the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia – the YPG – in the decision-making process regarding northern Syria.
In a theatrical gesture, Erdogan tore up the American document in the course of a speech in Turkey’s Parliament on Tuesday, as was reported by World Israel News.
“Turkey has almost completed all of the necessary preparations for defeating the remainder of ISIS’s forces in Syria, and following the planned American withdrawal, we will take action to neutralize all of the terror threats,” he announced.
Erdogan said Tuesday that Bolton was making “a very serious mistake” in demanding that Ankara guarantee the safety of Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria before the United States pulls its troops out of the country.
Criticizing the remarks Bolton made earlier in the week, Erdogan was quoted as saying there would be “no concessions” in Ankara’s push against what the Turkish leader describes as terror groups in Syria. Turkey denied promising the U.S. that Ankara will ensure the safety of the militia, known as the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
Erdogan made his comments after Bolton visited Ankara for consultations with government officials. Erdogan did not meet with him. Bolton instead met with other officials, including Erdogan’s special adviser and spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, as well as the country’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar.
Kalin told reporters, “Nobody should expect Turkey to provide assurances to a terror organization.”
Turkey sees Kurdish militias in Syria as terror groups that are involved in destabilizing eastern Turkey.
Hinting at the horrifying fate of the Syrian Kurds, Erdogan said: “Soon, we will eliminate all of the terror elements in Syria. If any group tries to interfere with our mission in Syria, we are duty bound to destroy it as well.”
Turkish forces have been massing for weeks along the Syrian border. Observers said the threat of a Turkish operation against the YPG in northeastern Syria, where around 2,000 U.S. soldiers are deployed, was the reason for Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria.
Once Trump announced his intention, Erdogan said Turkey would delay any operation until all U.S. forces left. Turkey’s anger over preconditions announced by Bolton before a U.S. withdrawal, including security guarantees for the Kurdish militia, may have brought forward the timing of a strike against the YPG.
A senior U.S. official told the Reuters news agency Bolton did not consider himself snubbed by Erdogan, as plans for a meeting between the two had not been confirmed. According to Reuters, Bolton was told that Turkey would not take offensive action in Syria while U.S. forces were there.
Bolton was rebuffed after trying to negotiate for roughly two hours the safety of the Kurdish allies in northeastern Syria. Bolton’s spokesman, Garrett Marquis, said talks between U.S. and Turkish military officials would continue Tuesday. Turkey and the U.S. are NATO allies.
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