Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abruptly canceled his planned meeting with National Security Adviser John Bolton on Tuesday, a major embarrassment for the US that further complicates the Trump administration’s shambolic Syria withdrawal rollout.
What’s worse, this diplomatic skirmish happened solely because of something Bolton said.
In Israel on Sunday, Bolton told reporters that President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria wouldn’t happen until certain conditions are met. The condition that most angered Erdogan was Bolton’s insistence that America’s 2,000 troops would stay in Northern Syria until Turkey promised not to attack Kurdish fighters.
Turkey considers Kurds near its border a serious terrorist threat and has plans to remove them by launching an all-out military assault. That led Erdogan to scrap the Bolton meeting at the last minute, after Trump’s top aide had already arrived in Turkey’s capital, Ankara.
Erdogan explained why he took such a brazen action in front of his country’s parliament on Tuesday. “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel,” he said. He said that Turkey doesn’t plan to kill anyone — including the Kurds — but then promptly added an important caveat: “The only exception is terrorist organizations and terrorists.”
That, to be clear, isn’t a commitment to keep US-backed Kurds in Syria alone. In neither his Tuesday speech nor his op-ed in the New York Times the day before did Erdogan actually say he wouldn’t send troops into Syria to eliminate the Kurdish fighters he views as terrorists. That puts the US in an awkward position: having to defend the Kurds, a key ally in Syria, and assuaging Turkey, a key NATO member.
There’s no question that the main culprit for this flare-up is Erdogan. His desire to eradicate Syrian Kurds has complicated America’s foreign policy in general and the Syria withdrawal in particular. Bolton didn’t have to make it harder, though — but he has a history of doing exactly that.
Bolton frequently makes Trump’s life harder on key diplomatic initiatives
Bolton had to know his statement in Israel would upset the Turkish leader and possibly blow up any chances to coordinate America’s withdrawal from Syria. That, however, may have been Bolton’s aim all along.
Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are avowed Iran hawks. They’ve repeatedly said that a main reason for the US deployment in Syria is to push out Iranian and Iranian-backed forces of the country. That goal was already hard to achieve with only 2,000 troops, but it would be even harder without any US troops there.
It’s therefore possible he wanted to scuttle talks with Erdogan to make it even harder for the US to bring its forces home.
Bolton has a history of doing this kind of thing.
In April 2018, Bolton told two Sunday new shows that the Trump administration wanted North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program just like Libya did. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was sure to bristle at that, as the absence of nuclear weapons is part of the reason Libya’s former dictator Muammar Qaddafi couldn’t stop an uprising that eventually led to his brutal death.
Two weeks later, North Korea put out a statement lambasting Bolton in particular over his comments and threatening to cancel the summit between Kim and Trump that was planned for that June.
That statement, in part, led Trump to cancel the summit soon afterward — although the president and Kim eventually met in Singapore on June 12.
Bolton ultimately wasn’t successful in scuttling Trump’s plans that time around, but it’s completely possible he may be successful now — if that’s in fact what he aimed to do.