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Trump's Syria Shift Leaves Bolton to Get Turkey to Play Along

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(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s national security adviser will tell Turkish leaders on Tuesday that the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria has morphed into a slower and more complicated exit with the prospect of an indefinite American footprint in the war-torn country.

The U.S. president decided to pull troops out last month during a call with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At first, Trump and his administration described a rapid removal of U.S. forces. Islamic State, “my only reason for being there,” was defeated, Trump said, and troops would be sent “back home to be with their families.”

But since the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and a bipartisan backlash in Congress, Trump has hit the brakes. On Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton said in Israel that American forces would remain in Syria until Islamic State is defeated, and that he would seek assurances from Turkey that it won’t attack allied Kurdish groups, which Erdogan’s government regards as terrorists, after the U.S. withdraws.

U.S. officials also said that a base in southeast Syria, Al Tanf, will remain in American hands, and the U.S. will also maintain control of airspace over northern Syria.

Read More: Turkey Readies Islamic State Battle Plan as U.S. Warns on Kurds

“We are watching our Syria policy get revised in real time,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I would say that I welcome the caveats that we’ve seen expressed now by John Bolton. But the fact that we are improvising on our Syria policy right now is concerning.”

Bolton’s next stop is Ankara, where it remains unclear whether Erdogan will give him an audience. He met with Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin on Tuesday morning but a joint press conference that had been scheduled in Ankara was cancelled, the Turkish presidency said. It gave no explanation for the change of plans.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo left on an eight-nation trip of his own to the Middle East on Monday. Pompeo told reporters on the flight to the Middle East that he saw no discrepancy in statements by Bolton and Trump on Syria.

“I think they both said the same thing,” he said. “They both said we’re gonna get out, the president said we’re gonna do it in an orderly fashion that achieves our objective and that our missions set in the region remains unchanged. That seems pretty consistent to me.”

Before he left Washington, Pompeo said Turkey had made a commitment to Trump to fight Islamic State but also to protect the “people we fought with,” a reference to Kurdish fighters allied with the U.S. who did much of the work fighting the militants.

“That’s why Ambassador Bolton is there later today or tomorrow, to have a conversation there about how we will effectuate that in light of the U.S. withdrawal,” Pompeo said on CNBC.

Earlier: Trump Defends Syria Exit as Putin and Erdogan Fill a U.S. Void

Turkey has long pushed the U.S. to end its alliance with Kurdish YPG fighters and has threatened an offensive against the group, which it regards as an extension of separatists it’s battled at home for decades.

The Turkish government is willing to take up the fight against the remnants of Islamic State in Syria, but wants American air cover for its forces and the YPG to move aside, according to a person with direct knowledge of its plans who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Erdogan described a lasting role for his country’s forces in Syria in an op-ed published in the New York Times on Monday. He proposed creating a “stabilization force featuring fighters from all parts of Syrian society” to “bring law and order to various parts of the country.”

“In this sense, I would like to point out that we have no argument with the Syrian Kurds,” he wrote.

“Under Turkey’s watch,” Erdogan wrote, areas of Syria controlled by the Kurds or Islamic State would be governed by “popularly elected” councils. “Turkish officials with relevant experience will advise them on municipal affairs, education, health care and emergency services.”

Asked about the shifting narratives surrounding a withdrawal from Syria, Pompeo told CNBC that while the U.S. planned to remove its 2,000 soldiers, the mission there “remains in full.”

And on Twitter Monday night, Trump remarked: Endless Wars, especially those which are fought out of judgement mistakes that were made many years ago, & those where we are getting little financial or military help from the rich countries that so greatly benefit from what we are doing, will eventually come to a glorious end!

--With assistance from Selcan Hacaoglu.

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net;Nick Wadhams in Washington at nwadhams@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Lin Noueihed

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