Turkish army troops gather near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province on January 21, 2018. Turkish forces on January 20, 2018, began a major new operation aimed at ousting the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia from Afrin, pounding dozens of targets from the sky in air raids and with artillery. Turkey accuses the YPG of being the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has waged a rebellion in the Turkish southeast for more than three decades and is regarded as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC

Erdogan Snubs Bolton Over Comments That Turkey Must Protect Kurds

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By Carlotta Gall

ISTANBUL (New York Times) — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey denounced on January 8, the White House national security adviser John R. Bolton for comments he made ahead of his arrival in the Turkish capital and refused to meet him on Tuesday, making any agreement between the two NATO partners over a United States withdrawal from Syria increasingly difficult.

Erdogan said Bolton had made a “grave mistake” when he said that Turkey must agree to protect Syria’s Kurds in the event of an American withdrawal.

“It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel,” Erdogan said in a speech to political party members in Parliament. Turkey was only opposed to Kurdish militant groups and not ordinary Kurds, he insisted.

Bolton was in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Tuesday for meetings with his national security counterpart Ibrahim Kalin but left after he was denied a meeting with Erdogan, the pro-government English-language newspaper Daily Sabah reported.

In a news briefing after Bolton’s departure, Kalin said that a meeting between Bolton and Erdogan had not been scheduled and had been deemed unnecessary after the national security advisers had met.

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Erdogan had hailed President Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria as the “right call.”

In an Opinion piece in the New York Times, he made the case that Turkey, with the second largest standing army in the NATO alliance, was the only country with the power and commitment to replace United States forces in northeastern Syria, to fight terrorism and ensure stability for the Syrian people.

In Jerusalem, in addition to demanding guarantees that Turkey would not attack Kurdish forces allied with the United States, Bolton told reporters that American forces would remain in Syria until the Islamic State was defeated, seemingly contradicting his boss, Trump.

“We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States, at a minimum so they don’t endanger our troops,” Bolton had said.

Yet even before Bolton’s comments angered Erdogan, discussions were bound to show how far apart the two sides are in their priorities in Syria, political analysts said.

The main reason that Ankara supports a withdrawal of United States forces, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the Ankara director for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, is that it would end support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., which Turkey regards as a terrorist group, and would also put paid to the idea of Rojava, a Kurdish-run autonomous territory across northern Syria.

The Y.P.G. is widely seen as the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the P.K.K., which has been fighting an insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s and is recognized as a terrorist organization by that country, the United States and the European Union.

If it means an end to American support for the Kurds in Syria, Unluhisarcikli said, Turkey is even prepared to accept an end to United States air space in eastern Syrian and to lose NATO air and logistical support.

“If the alternative is continued cooperation with the Y.P.G., they would want them to leave,” he said, describing Turkey’s view of the American presence in Syria.

Turkish officials would be likely to disabuse Washington of some of its expectations in the meetings, he added.

“America will request Turkey’s further cooperation against Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “I am not sure Turkey will deliver.”

Turkish forces have been mustering for an operation into northeastern Syria, but the Turkish military is intent on dealing with the Kurdish militant threat and does not want to extend more than 15 to 20 kilometers, roughly 10 miles, into Syria, Unluhisarcikli said.

The United States would like Turkey to agree not to move against the Y.P.G. and its political branch, the P.Y.D., in the event of an American withdrawal.

“That is a hopeless cause,” Unluhisarcikli said. “It is not a question of whether. Turkey will not tolerate the P.K.K. on its borders. So it is only a matter of time.”

Kurdish representatives in Syria complained that American officials had left them out of talks so far and expressed concern at the conflicting messaging.

“We’re expecting to hear from the Americans soon, but so far they have not involved us in the talks,” said Nasser Haj Mansour, a Kurdish politician and former adviser to the United States-backed Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces. “We are hoping that Turkey would avoid any military action within our borders,” he said.

Newaf Khalil, head of the Europe-based Center for Kurdish Studies, warned that Turkish forces would not listen to American requests not to target Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

“The U.S. is saying that the Turks won’t kill the Kurds if they deploy, but definitely they will kill S.D.F. fighters, their families, and many more,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re talking about thousands. There’s a big contradiction in the U.S. statements, and this is not acceptable.”

Turkey supports rebels fighting the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria but opposes groups it considers to be terrorists, including the Islamic State and the Y.P.G. It backs the 30,000-strong Free Syrian Army, renamed the National Liberation Front, which has fought against both the Islamic State and Y.P.G. forces in Afrin.

In his Opinion article, Erdogan called for “a stabilization force featuring fighters from all parts of Syrian society” as a first step to replace the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which are commanded by members of the Y.P.G.

Turkish officials have said their immediate concern is what happens to the United States bases, and the matériel and weapons America has brought into Syria, in the event of a withdrawal.

“There are many issues such as how it is going to happen,” Kalin, the national security adviser and presidential spokesman, said in an interview last week with NTV news channel. “How they will withdraw, what will happen to the bases there, the recollection of the weapons given to P.Y.D./Y.P.G., the type of the relationship with them, the continuation of the struggle against Daesh, avoiding a security void there: We will handle those in those meetings.”

One area where United States and Turkish officials could find some agreement is how to proceed with the Syrian town of Manbij, a strategic crossroads in northern Syria where United States forces have a base and where the local council is dominated by the Kurdish Y.P.G.

Turkey has been threatening to advance on the city, demanding that the Y.P.G. leave and complaining that the United States is dragging its feet in bringing that about. Nevertheless American forces have been conducting joint patrols with Turkish forces around Manbij and a joint working group has finally reached agreement on the criteria for vetting officials to run the local council.

Although slow, the Manbij road map offers a way for the United States to pull out and leave a workable system behind in a string of northern towns along the Turkish border.

“The primary issue is naturally Manbij, the withdrawal of entire P.Y.D./Y.P.G. forces from Manbij,” Kalin said. “Of course it is not only that. It is important for them to withdraw from other Arab cities they have invaded. We will go on negotiating those.”

Turkey would not, however, fill the entire void that a United States departure would leave, Unluhisarcikli said.

Surprise changes in the top of the Turkish military indicate internal disagreement over the Syrian deployment, Metin Gurcan, a military analyst, wrote this week in a column for the news site Al-Monitor.

Two top generals — Gen. Metin Temel, commander of the Second Army, a rising star who commanded the operation in Afrin last spring and is known to be close to Erdogan; and Brig. Gen. Mustafa Barut, commander of the Fourth Commando Brigade — were abruptly removed by presidential decree on Dec. 31 and reassigned to desk jobs in the General Staff.

The demotions appear to be because of differences between them and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and the chief of staff, Yasar Guler, including over deployments into Syria.

“Temel wants Ankara to have no part in cooperating with the United States in northeast Syria,” Gurcan wrote. “He thinks that because Kurdish forces there get substantial U.S. support and are well equipped and trained, it would be risky to launch a midwinter operation there while relying on confusing and undependable messages from the United States.”

Meanwhile Erdogan will be meeting President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in coming days, the Turkish media reported.

“The Russians as well are happy about the U.S. withdrawal plan,” Kalin said. Moscow wants the Syrian government to take control of northeastern Syria while Turkey was still holding out for it to be handed to local councils, he said.

“They have such an inclination but they are not insistent on that,” Kalin said of Russia. “We believe that it would be more right to do it with elements of local people.”

Erdogan told reporters after his speech in Parliament that an incursion into Syria might happen “at any moment after the Bolton meetings,’’ the news channel NTV reported. He also added that he might have a phone call with Trump.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut and Karam Shoumali from Berlin.

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