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Ilhan Tanir
Jan 11 2019

It was Erdogan who asked for a meeting, says snubbed U.S. official John Bolton

It was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who invited John Bolton for a meeting in Ankara, the White House National Security Adviser said on a popular radio show with Hugh Hewitt.

Bolton travelled to Ankara to discuss the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria on Tuesday, but he was denied a meeting by President Erdoğan, who has expressed anger at the slowing down of U.S. plans to withdraw. Bolton said he went to Turkey because Erdogan invited him during the call with U.S. President Trump on December 14th.

Bolton instead met his counterpart, Erdogan's spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın, to request that Turkey refrains from attacking Kurdish allies of the United States. The request was rejected by Erdoğan. Bolton's first interview since the meeting with Hugh Hewitt on his radio show. 

Bolton told Hewitt he had been able to deliver the message that U.S. President Donald Trump wanted delivered, adding that the delegation of military personnel accompanying him had continued the discussions at a military to military level after he left.

Bolton, pointing out the upcoming local elections in late March in Turkey, said Erdoğan's rejection of a meeting could be "a little display of politics." 

Bolton also repeated U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's earlier remarks that Erdoğan had in fact committed to protect the Syrian Kurdish fighters who fought alongside U.S. forces against the Islamic State.

"We understood President Erdoğan to have made that commitment. Now this is a very complex military environment out there, and so what we wanted, what we’re still pursuing in these military to military conversations are assurances and protocols and procedures so that everybody feels comfortable with how this is going to happen," Bolton said.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar on Friday said Turkey was cointinuing preparations for a military operation in Syria on the east of the Euphrates River that would start “at the right time for Ankara,” state-run Anadolu Agency reported .

“The Turkish armed forces will start to clear the areas on the east of the Euphrates River of terrorists at the right time for Ankara, as they have done before in others regions of Syria,” Akar said.

Bolton said he had presented to his counterparts during the meeting in Ankara "a non-paper, that’s a fancy diplomatic term for just being a set of ideas, but expressing what the U.S. position was fully agreed upon by the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, so that the Turks knew we were all speaking with one voice despite the media commentary that would have you believe otherwise."

The Trump administration has been under heavy criticism for being unable to send consistent message when it comes to Middle East policies, and especially on Syria. While the top U.S. officials who were responsible for Syria policy explained to their audience that the U.S. would stay in Syria indefinitely to counter Iranian influence and ensure the defeat of ISIS, during the same days Trump declared over Twitter an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

Conservative radio talk presenter Hewitt also asked Bolton what would be the U.S. reaction "(if) Turkey unintentionally or intentionally fired on and wounded or killed American troops".

Bolton responded,

"It’s exactly this concern that American service members not be put in jeopardy, especially by a NATO ally, that was principally on President Trump’s mind. The first duty of the President is to protect Americans. And in implementing his decision to withdraw from Northern Syria, Northeastern Syria, he didn’t want the Turks or anybody else to take any action that would put them in jeopardy. So I think that’s why we’ve all been saying publicly that, and it was part of the presentation we made in Turkey, that the Turks should not take any military action that’s not fully coordinated through military to military channels with us."

Hewitt followed up with another question on whether such a Turkish military attack on the U.S. forces would trigger Article 5 of the NATO pact, which would require other NATO members to respond the Turks.

Bolton said this would depend on the circumstances, but he added that assumes that "the Turkish military will try and comply with what President Erdoğan committed to President Trump. As I say, these discussions are continuing and hopefully we can elaborate on it. But it’s just critically important that we not allow the situation to deteriorate. We’re also quite concerned, let’s be clear, it’s not just concern about the Turks. It’s concern about the Assad regime. It’s concern about the Iranians in Syria backing the Assad regime, and the Russians who might want to take over Northeast Syria as well."

The full interview can be listened here.