Bolton Contradicts Trump on Syria Withdrawal Plan

WASHINGTON (CN) – White House national security adviser John Bolton’s attempt to clarify the government’s position on removing American forces from Syria prompted a series of conflicting messages and attacks on the media from President Donald Trump on Monday.

In contradiction to the president’s statements on Dec. 19 announcing an abrupt draw-down of troops in the region, Bolton told reporters traveling with him in Israel on Sunday that the withdrawal would only occur under certain conditions.

(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Bolton, who was in Israel for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the U.S. must have assurances Turkey will not attack Kurdish allies in the region once U.S. forces depart. 

“The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement,” Bolton said Sunday. 

Bolton will meet with Turkish President Recep Erdogan on Tuesday to discuss objectives in the region. 

Last month, in a video posted to Twitter, Trump emphasized that troops would be removed “now.” 

“So our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now. We won, and that’s the way we want it,” he said. 

Since then, the president has expanded the initial 30-day deadline to withdraw troops to four months and on Sunday denied saying that he ever committed to pulling out “quickly.” 

Trump’s claims of sweeping victory over the Islamic State terrorist group were also in conflict with Bolton’s statements over the weekend.  

Pockets of Syria are still under control by the terrorist network, also known as ISIS, Bolton said. Before any measures are taken, he said, it’s “very important” that the U.S. discuss long-term strategy with other stakeholders in region like Israel and Turkey.

By Monday, as reports highlighting the mixed messages continued to surface, Trump tweeted: “The Failing New York Times has knowingly written a very inaccurate story on my intentions on Syria. 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!”

In another tweet earlier in the day, Trump said, “The Fake News will knowingly lie and demean in order make the tremendous success of the Trump Administration, and me, look as bad as possible. They use non-existent sources & write stories that are total fiction. Our Country is doing so well, yet this is a sad day in America!”

Though President Trump and Turkish President Erdogan have expressed mutual confidence that Turkey would continue fighting terrorists in the region once the U.S. makes its exit, concerns about the fragility and level of commitment by allies in the region remain. 

Randa Slim, a senior fellow and director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., told Courthouse News that the White House’s messaging on Syria appears to ignore nuances around the conflict there.  

“Depending on how the U.S. executes its withdrawal, it could create a vacuum and [the extent of that vacuum] all depends on what the agenda of the other actors are,” Slim said. “You have Turkey on one hand, the Syrian regime on the other. Then Iran and Russia. We have not seen any of them devote the kind of resources needed to defeat ISIS the way the U.S. has done.”  

Bolton also told reporters Sunday that the Kurds should avoid seeking protection under Syrian President Bashar al Assad or Russia as the U.S. drops troop numbers. 

But this is a life or death conundrum, Slim explained. 

“What are their choices? They are sandwiched between two sides. Turkey? The Kurds know where they stand. [Their only option is] going to be the regime in Damascus where they may not get everything they want economically or politically but if they do, they will be protected from what they know will be an onslaught from Turkey,” Slim said. 

Ahead of Bolton’s meeting with Erdogan on Tuesday to discuss the future of Syria and mutual objectives, it is unclear what exactly those will be, Slim said. 

“We are now in this peculiar situation where no matter how much planning or work is being put out by the American team, everyone knows that could change suddenly… we’ve seen other members of the administration’s national security team articulate objectives the U.S. will need to meet, but not the president,” she said. 

Objectives cannot be pragmatic or realized if U.S. forces are withdrawn, she added.   

“There is tumult in the administration’s approach to this region because I think they know very well they don’t have the legroom or maneuvering to put in place the kind of procedure and mechanisms that guarantee peace there,” Slim said. 

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