US National Security Adviser John Bolton was armed with a compromise proposal on instructions from President Donald Trump when he arrived in Ankara on Tuesday, Jan. 8 – only to be roundly snubbed. President Tayyip Erdogan refused to receive him and not only him but even Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff and James Jeffrey, Trump’s special adviser on Syria and the war on ISIS.
Two days earlier, Bolton had made what Erdogan called “a grave mistake” by insisting that the US troop withdrawal from Syria depended on a firm commitment from Turkey to fight ISIS and not attack the Kurds. The security adviser ruled out “an arbitrary point for the withdrawal as President Obama did in Afghanistan. The timetable flows from policy decisions that need to be implemented,” he said.
The US compromise proposal is revealed here for the first time by DEBKA Weekly It was to permit Turkish forces to remain in northern Syria and move around freely so long as they stayed out of the enclaves inhabited by Kurds or controlled by their YPG militia. This ban applied also to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
But Bolton was not able to deliver it. While he, Gen. Dunford and Jeffrey were on their way to the presidential office in Ankara, they were abruptly informed that, instead of the president, they would see the presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. And rather than communicating the US plan, they were forced to hear Erdogan’s dictates read out by his minion. They were told in no uncertain terms that all the bases the US army was leaving must be handed over immediately to the Turkish army. It was Erdogan’s intention, they were told, to assert control over all parts of northeastern Syria.
In Ankara, therefore, Bolton experienced the loud crash of the painstaking strategy put together in the past five months by Jeffrey for the areas vacated by US troops to be handed over calmly on the strength of consensual US-Russian-Turkish-Syrian Kurdish understandings.
Intent also on preventing Russia from jumping the gun on these understandings and advancing prematurely on the bases formerly held by US forces, Washington gave the Turks the go-ahead for obstructive steps. They also hoped to turn Ankara’s obsessive attention away from the hated Kurds. This week saw the first consequences. On Jan. 6, the Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham HTS), which Turkey backs with logistics and intelligence, seized the key town of Atareb in Aleppo province from a rival Syrian rebel group, at the end of a week-long campaign to seize northwestern Syria.
This battled ended in the HTS gaining control of security in this provincial town while its subsidiary, the Syrian Salvation Government, took over the management of civilian, judicial and municipal functions.
By this operation, Ankara effectively ripped up the Russian-Turkish pact concluded last October for northwestern Syria, whereby rebel factions including HTS moved their heavy weapons out of a 15-20km wide buffer zone encircling rebel-held Idlib, Syria’s largest province. The HTS is now moving in on the entire northwest, targeting strategic infrastructure and grabbing control of the trade crossings and stretches of major highways. The Russians, who abstained from aerial attacks on the Aleppo region for some months, this week went back to air strikes for curtailing the Islamist group’s push into this area of Russian influence.
Washington has another major interest in keeping ties with Ankara on an even keel, namely, to stop the $2.5bn deal for Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missiles from going through. Up until this week, the Turks stood firmly by the deal, promising to be the first member of NATO to integrate advanced Russian hardware in its armory. However, on Sunday, Jan. 6, the first sign of hesitancy appeared in an announcement by Ismail Emir, head of Turkey’s Defense Industry Presidency, that a US technical team was due in Ankara in the coming weeks “to express specific concerns over the purchase, particularly with regard to the flight safety of the US F-35 aircraft.” In the light of these concerns, he said, Turkey would use the Russian system as a “stand alone” equipment, without integrating it with other weaponry or radar systems. “The system we will use will have its own radar, own threat-detection and own tracking system,” he said, describing “an architecture that won’t be integrated with other systems.”
Ismail Emir added that Turkey would introduce its own software and identification of the friend-or-foe system to the S-400s. “The Russians understand this, because it’s about the sovereignty of a country.”
Turkey has meanwhile also launched negotiations with the US for the sale of $3.5bn worth of US Patriot air defense systems. But on Tuesday, all these considerations and actions abruptly collapsed when Erdogan decided to fob off with a lowly official the top US presidential advisers who came to Ankara for a scheduled meeting with him. The Turkish president, who is intent on dominating northern Syria while also clobbering the Kurds, may find he has bitten off more than he can chew. After all, neither the Americans nor the Russians want to see Turkey ruling all northern Syria. Either or both may show him the whip.