U.S. to Pull Out of Syria in Way That Defeats ISIS, Bolton Says
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. will withdraw troops from northeastern Syria in a way that ensures Islamic State is defeated for good, and will stay until Turkey agrees not to go after the Kurds, the U.S. national security advisor said on Sunday.
John Bolton spent the day in Israel assuring allies that Donald Trump is committed to their protection, weeks after the president announced he was pulling out of Syria and declaring that the jihadist group had been defeated.
“We’re going to be discussing the president’s decision to withdraw, but to do so from northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and become a threat again,” Bolton said late Sunday during an appearance in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He said the U.S. would “make sure that the defense of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured.”
Earlier, Bolton told reporters that “we don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States.” His comments came ahead ahead of a meeting this week in Turkey with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey needs to meet “the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered,” he said.
Two weeks ago, after Trump announced the withdrawal plan, Turkey’s military began deploying hundreds of vehicles and troops in areas surrounding the northwestern Syrian town of Manbij that Ankara has long pushed the U.S. to clear of Kurdish militant groups. Turkey has repeatedly vowed to capture Manbij and to extend its offensive against the Kurds eastwards, but U.S. troops were a major obstacle.
Bolton’s visit follows a backlash from U.S. lawmakers and other nations that the Kurds’ fate was left in doubt by Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he would quickly withdraw. Trump has since indicated the withdrawal would be slower than initially suggested, although Bolton on Sunday rejected any specific timetable.
“This is a cause-and-effect mission,” Bolton said. “Timetables or the timing of the withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfillment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances that we want to see. And once that’s done, then you talk about a timetable.”
Trump said on Sunday that the U.S. is “going to be removing our troops” but added in remarks to reporters at the White House that “I never said we’re doing it quickly.”
“We’re pulling out of Syria, but we’re doing it and we won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone,” Trump added. On Dec. 19 the president tweeted on Dec. 19 that “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.” On Dec. 31 he said the U.S. was “slowly” sending the troops home.
A spokesman for Turkey’s president said the country targeting terrorist groups in Syria, not the Kurds. Organizations linked to the PKK, deemed by Turkey and the U.S. to be terrorists, “cannot represent Syrian Kurds” and claiming such a connection is “disrespectful of our Kurdish brothers,” spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said, according to the Anadolu Agency.
Bolton said the withdrawal from Syria would not involve setting a target date, as he said former President Barack Obama did in Afghanistan. “The primary point is we are going to withdraw from northeastern Syria," he said.
Bolton asserted Trump’s broad authority to protect U.S. interests "anywhere around the world.” Asked about the authority to maintain U.S. forces at al-Tanf in Syria, Bolton said “There’s plenty of legal justification about concern for the resurgence of ISIS.”
Bolton on Sunday said the U.S. guidance to the Kurds is “stand fast now.” While acknowledging meetings last week in Moscow with Russian and Turkish leaders, Bolton said, “My impression is those meetings in Moscow did not go well. I think they know who their friends are.”
Bolton spoke with reporters on a day filled with meetings with Israeli political, intelligence and national security officials, capped off by a dinner with Netanyahu.
After the dinner Netanyahu said that, weather permitting, the pair would visit the Golan Heights on Monday. He urged the Trump administration to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area as part of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
The Trump adviser began the morning with prayers at the Western Wall with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer. The men also toured the tunnels that extend under and beyond the wall and the Old City. Palestinians are concerned that Israelis will use the excavations to further their claim to contested parts of Jerusalem.
During a portion of the tour Bolton donned special goggles for a virtual-reality visualization of the Old City as it might have appeared centuries ago. Bolton also signed the guestbook for the Wall in a portion of the tunnels under the old Muslim Quarter, writing, "This is a great accomplishment to uncover all of this history, from the very start of our common Western Civilization. Best wishes for all your efforts!"
Meanwhile, Friedman acknowledged the Trump administration’s long-promised Mideast peace plan is "pretty much completed" but may not be released until after Israeli elections in April.
"I would say within the next several months," Friedman said when asked about the release. "We want to release it a way that gives it the best chance of getting a good reception."
Israel’s elections "are a factor, but not the only factor," he said. "The challenge to a peace plan is making the case for a much more sober assessment of the realities in this region," he said. "The last time there was a meaningful agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians was 1993. A lot has happened since 1993."
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