The withdrawal from Syria looks less imminent and more aspirational with every frequent-flier mile John Bolton picks up. Donald Trump’s national-security advisor met with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel yesterday to discuss plans for the region, including a withdrawal from “northeast Syria,” as Bolton specified in a joint presser. Furthermore, the US wouldn’t withdraw any troops until Turkey provided security for US allies in the region — which is the equivalent of never:
White House national security adviser John Bolton on Sunday outlined conditions for a U.S. troop departure from Syria that appeared to contradict President Trump’s insistence less than a month ago that the withdrawal would be immediate and without conditions.
Speaking during a visit to Israel, Bolton said that certain “objectives” must be achieved before a pullout could take place. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.” …
“It’s also very important that as we discuss with members of the coalition, [and] other countries that have an interest, like Israel and Turkey, that we expect that those who have fought with us in Syria . . . particularly the Kurds,” not be put in “jeopardy” by the withdrawal, said Bolton, who plans to travel Tuesday to Ankara.
Bolton has changed the terms of this decision dramatically since Trump announced it three weeks ago. At the time, Trump declared that we had beaten ISIS and there was no need for us to stick around, later softening the first part to say that Turkey and Syria could mop up the rest of ISIS. Over the past week, Bolton has acknowledged that ISIS is not yet vanquished and still has the capacity for “reviving” itself; US allies in the region still require our protection; and that the withdrawal is limited to “northeastern Syria.” The latter is undoubtedly a gesture to Netanyahu, who would have to ensure that a pullout of American forces and allies in southern Syria didn’t give Iran a foothold from which to launch attacks on Israel.
Trump himself seems to be backpedaling a bit too, at least on the timeline:
Trump also commented Sunday on the timing of the withdrawal. “I never said we’d be doing it that quickly,” the president said from the White House. “We won’t be finally pulled out, until ISIS is gone.”
The remark came in contrast to the president’s statement from Dec. 19., when he said the withdrawal would happen quickly and that the U.S. had defeated ISIS. “Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now,” Trump said at the time. “We won.”
Everyone’s slowing their roll now, and with Bolton heading to Ankara, that roll will come to a complete stop. Recep Tayyip Ergodan considers the YPG to be a part of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that both Turkey and the US consider to be a terrorist organization. The US position on the YPG became considerably more nuanced once it became clear that they were the only group that could lead urban assaults on ISIS, and our alliance brought howls of protest from Ankara all along.
If the US plans on making a withdrawal conditional on Turkish guarantees of safety for the YPG in Syria, one of two things will happen. Either we will never withdraw from “northeastern Syria,” or we will stand by and watch our anti-ISIS allies get massacred as Turkey reneges on any security pledge they make. Want to guess which way our Kurdish allies are betting?
Update: Jeff Dunetz has a good analysis about Bolton’s trip and policies in a different context.