Trump aide: US Syria withdrawal only after Islamic State defeated

Erika Holt
January 7, 2019

President Donald Trump's national security adviser said Sunday that the American military withdrawal from northeastern Syria is conditioned on defeating the remnants of the Islamic State group and on Turkey assuring the safety of US -allied Kurdish fighters.

The decision was made after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been threatening a military operation against the USA -backed Kurds.

President Donald Trump's abrupt decision to announce a U.S. pullout from Syria left many questions, including whether Kurdish fighters who had been operating in northern Syria alongside United States forces would now be targeted by their long-time enemy Turkey.

Turkey wants the United States to disarm Syrian Kurdish forces it has trained and supplied for the fight against the Islamic State, and to provide air and logistical support for Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces who plan to pick up the anti-militant battle after a USA withdrawal.

The announcement, which took officials in Washington and allies overseas by surprise, contributed to Jim Mattis' decision to resign as USA defense secretary and prompted concern that Islamic State could stage a comeback.

President Donald Trump's abrupt decision to announce a US pullout from Syria left many questions open, chiefly whether Kurdish fighters who had been operating in northern Syria alongside USA forces would now be attacked by their long-time enemy, Turkey. "That's what the president said, the ones that fought with us". "I never said we're doing it that quickly".

Trump also said it was up to other countries to fight ISIS, including Russian Federation and Iran, adding that ISIS was down to its last remaining bits of territory in Syria.

Bolton made his comments while on a visit to Jerusalem, where he is meeting with Israeli officials to explain Donald Trump's sudden announcement last month that American forces stationed in Syria would be coming home.

Separately on Friday, the US-led coalition said it carried out 469 strikes in Syria between Dec 16 and Dec 29 that destroyed almost 300 fighting positions, more than 150 staging areas, and a number of supply routes, oil lubricant storage facilities and equipment.

The ISIS fighters were preparing to attack civilians fleeing the area, the SDF said.

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Later on Sunday Bolton met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reassured Israel and other allies of the United States' commitment to their security.

President Donald Trump announced last month that he was withdrawing all US troops from Syria immediately but has since softened the timing to say the drawdown will happen more slowly.

Turkey considers the Kurdish paramilitary forces in Syria their enemies and prepares an operation against them by bringing the military equipment to the border.

Asked whether a United States withdrawal would not take place in Syria until Turkey guaranteed the Kurdish fighters would be safe, Bolton said, "Basically, that's right". If the U.S. leaves a vacuum in southern Syria, Iran will try to fill it - and Israel will unleash waves of attacks to prevent that from happening.

Ahead of his meeting with Turkish officials on Monday, Bolton said he will seek 'to find out what their objectives and capabilities are and that remains uncertain'.

Trump's move has raised fears about clearing the way for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in Syria who have fought alongside American troops against IS extremists.

Similar questions arose last week, after Trump offered a perplexing take on world history, incorrectly claiming that the Soviet Union's demise was a result of the Red Army's war in Afghanistan, which they apparently were forced to invade to address terrorist threats. "I think they know who their friends are", he added, speaking of the Kurds.

Kurdish forces are fighting against so-called Islamic State in Syria, with the Kurdish north-east of the country seeking autonomy. He defended the legal basis for the deployment, saying it's justified by the president's constitutional authority.

The prime minister added that he meant to discuss a number of important issues with US National Security Adviser John Bolton later in the day.

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