A senior US official has revealed the US decision to withdraw from Syria was made following a Trump-Erdogan phone call last Friday, despite Trump administration denials.
Fox News, quoting a senior Pentagon official on Thursday, reported that Mr Trump’s withdrawal decision was made “last Friday after speaking with Turkish President Erdogan.” In that call, the Turkish leader told Mr Trump that Turkish forces were planning an incursion into Syria to go after the Kurdish militants and warned US troops in those areas “to get out of the way.” The Pentagon has called any threat of a Turkish incursion “unacceptable.”
Two British and Turkish sources familiar with the deliberations in the White House confirmed to The National that Mr Trump made his decision based on his phone call with Mr Erdogan.
However, publicly, the Trump administration is refuting this narrative. On Wednesday and in a phone call with reporters, a senior US official insisted that the US President “made his own decision”.
“It was not something he discussed with President Erdogan. He has informed President Erdogan of his decision…. this was not a topic of discussion. It was informational” the US official said.
The White House stopped issuing readouts of Mr Trump's phone calls with foreign leaders in July.
At the State Department, US officials met on Thursday to help draft withdrawal and contingency planning for Syria. Those meetings forced US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey to cancel his trip to New York for a UN Security Council meeting on Syria.
"Given recent developments, Ambassador Jeffrey stayed in Washington today in order to engage with our partners and allies on the way forward in Syria" a US official told The National.
“Ambassador Jeffrey has spoken with United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and is closely monitoring his report to the UN Security Council in New York on the progress of the Constitutional Committee” he said.
Contradictory reports about the scope and timeline of a US withdrawal emerged on Thursday. US officials told Reuters that the withdrawal means an end to the US air campaign, but US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to indicate otherwise. “The US intends to continue that counter-terrorism campaign, continue the fight against ISIS, whether it stems from Syria or other places” Mr Pompeo told Fox News in an interview.
Inside Syria, aid organisations in areas where the US operates were advised to halt any new projects, Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow with Centre for New American Security, said.
“They [the NGOs] were instructed not to start any new projects until further guidance has been given” Mr Heras said. “They will not know the impact on their programmes until a plan has been worked out between Defence and State department but for the time being, they have been told to continue their programming if it is already underway while preparing contingencies for withdrawing their programming from some areas of Syria” the expert said.
Contacted by The National, one representative from a global humanitarian organisation that works inside Syria confirmed the halt and attributed it to security reasons.