WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - New details have emerged about the discussion between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that precipitated Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and to do so quickly.
As Kurdistan 24 earlier reported, their phone conversation, a week ago Friday, triggered Trump’s decision. However, it was unclear how Erdogan’s threats to launch a cross-border attack on Syria had caused Trump’s about-face.
On Friday, The Washington Post provided the missing link: Erdogan told Trump that Turkey would be able to deal with whatever was left of the Islamic State in Syria.
The Turkish army is strong, Erdogan affirmed. So why did the US need to keep 2,000 troops in Syria?
Trump responded in a way that astonished Erdogan, as well as Amb. John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Adviser, who was listening in on the conversation
“You know what? It’s yours,” Trump said, “I’m leaving.”
The discussion was not supposed to go that way. Rather, Trump was supposed to tell Erdogan to back off on his repeated threats to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
The day before, on December 13, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had spoken with his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Their conversation set up the call between Trump and Erdogan on Friday.
Trump’s national security team prepared tough talking points, the Associated Press (AP) reported. But Trump did not stick to them.
When Erdogan said that the Islamic State was 99 percent defeated in Syria, Trump asked Bolton if that was true.
“Bolton was forced to admit” that Pompeo, Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense, the US Special Envoy for Syria Engagement, Amb. James Jeffrey, and Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, had all said that the terrorist organization retained just one percent of its territory, AP related.
Bolton tried to explain to Trump that the US goal—the enduring defeat of the Islamic State—meant more than just taking away its territory, but he failed to convince the president.
The national security triumvirate—Bolton, Pompeo, and Mattis—met together at the White House on Monday, hoping to modify Trump’s decision, only to be told that his mind was made up. They tried again on Tuesday, with the same result.
The decision became public on Wednesday, precipitating Matts’ resignation the following day.
Defending Trump’s decision, Stephen Miller, Senior Advisor to the President, told CNN on Thursday, “ISIS is the enemy of Syria,” and “ISIS is the enemy of Turkey,” as he suggested that they, along with Russia, should take over responsibility for fighting the Islamic State.
Miller has no background in national security matters, and the relationship of both countries toward the Islamic State is complex.
Turkey supports radical Sunni groups in Syria—as it did in January, when it used them as auxiliaries in its assault on Afrin. Ankara even supported the Islamic State earlier in Syria’s civil war.
A decade ago, during the US war in Iraq, Syria supported the insurgency there, including the group, al Qaida in Iraq. As a 2007 Pentagon report concluded, Syria “recognizes that Islamist extremists and elements of the former Iraqi regime share [its] desire to undermine coalition efforts in Iraq.”
In other words, Syria views Islamic extremists as an enemy in some contexts, but an ally in others.
Finally, on Saturday, Brett McGurk announced that he, like Mattis, was resigning in protest of Trump’s decision.
Let us put @brett_mcgurk decision in its right context. He was set to leave his office in February 2019. He had already lined up his next gig. He just accelerated his departure by 2 months. This decision is not moral courage. It is how opportunism looks like. https://t.co/F1AI3hfoIh— Randa Slim (@rmslim) December 22, 2018
McGurk was already slated to leave shortly, and some people, like the Middle East Institute’s Randa Slim, suggested his resignation was “opportunism,” rather than “moral courage.”
The Washington Examiner reported that other State Department officials were mocking McGurk’s resignation.
“[He] was scheduled to leave the State Department in April of this year, but, asked the secretary to stay on. His departure was rescheduled for the end of this year, so for him to account for his departure to principle is unfounded,” one official told the Examiner.
“This guy should have been out on his ear back in April, and he was allowed to stay on because he basically needed the job,” another source said. Now, he wants the speeches that he will give after he leaves government “to collect $20,000 a pop instead of $2,000 a pop.”
McGurk was no friend of the Kurds and had been a major force behind the vociferous US opposition to last year’s independence referendum.
Hoshyar Zebari, a long-time member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who served as Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Finance Minister in the years after 2003, tweeted of McGurk’s resignation, “Finally is a wise and timely decision.”