Bolton: Protection of Syria's Kurds a condition for US withdrawal

Washington asks Syrian Kurdish partners not to seek protection from Russia or Bashar Al Assad’s government

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 27, 2018.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
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Turkey must agree to protect Washington’s Kurdish partners in Syria before the US withdraws troops from the country, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton said yesterday, as battles with ISIS raged on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River.

Mr Bolton, who is scheduled to travel to Turkey on Monday, said that a US pull-out is also conditional on the defeat of ISIS, in comments that confirm that an exit announced by President Donald Trump last month has been slowed.


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“We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully co-ordinated with and agreed to by the United States ... so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered,” Mr Bolton said in Israel, before a meeting this week in Turkey with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Timetables or the timing of the withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfilment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances that we want to see. And once that’s done, then you talk about a timetable."

His comments drew the ire of Mr Erdogan's spokesman who said on Sunday it was irrational to claim Turkey targets Kurds.

Ibrahim Kalin said Ankara’s targets are ISIS and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – a Syrian Kurdish group – as well as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed militant group that has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

The announcement by Mr Trump of a US withdrawal speeded up the resignation of senior White House officials, including defence secretary Jim Mattis and Washington’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk.

It also sparked criticism from allies who accused Washington of abandoning its Syrian partners and exposing them to attacks by Turkey.

Mr Bolton said the US has asked its Kurdish allies to “stand fast” and refrain from seeking protection from Russia or Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government.

"I think they know who their friends are," he said, referring to Syria's Kurdish groups.
Some Kurdish groups are in talks with Russia to secure a deal with the Syrian government in Damascus. A Kurdish delegation visited Moscow to discuss a road map after a US withdrawal.
They aim to secure a Russian-mediated political deal with Damascus regardless of US plans to withdraw from the region, Badran Jia Kurd, a senior Kurdish official told Reuters this week.

“The final decision is [to reach an] agreement with Damascus, we will work in this direction regardless of the cost, even if the Americans object,” Mr Jia Kurd said in the northern Syrian city of Qamishli.

Mr Bolton said Jim Jeffrey, who was named last week as the American special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, will go to Syria this week to reassure Washington’s Kurdish allies they are not being abandoned

Fighting yesterday continued between ISIS and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces around the village of Al Shaafa – one of the last major areas held by the militants.

A missile fired by ISIS on the outskirts of the village of Al Shaafa on Saturday wounded two British soldiers in the US-led coalition and killed one Kurdish fighter, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The two British soldiers were transported by helicopter to receive medical care, the observatory said. When contacted by The National, the UK Ministry of Defence said it could not comment as the troops are members of the country's special forces.

A second missile attack on Sunday targeted an SDF position on the flanks of Al Shaafa and killed scores of Kurdish fighters, the activist-run DeirEzzor24 monitor said.

The SDF was not available for comment.

Fierce fighting in and around Al Shaafa since Saturday comes after the SDF and coalition forces made advances in the area in recent days.

Omar Abu Layla of DeirEzzor24 told The National that most of the village was under SDF control. ISIS defences in the area are "collapsing," he said.

He warned, however, that ISIS sleeper cells in Deir Ezzor still posed a threat.

Clashes east of the Euphrates have killed more than 1,000 ISIS militants and nearly 600 fighters affiliated with the SDF since the fighting began in September, according to the Observatory.

Thousands of people have also fled the militant-held area towards Kurdish-held territory in Deir Ezzor province over the past month, the war monitor said.