Sunday 22 September 2019

Trump call with Turkish leader ‘led to US pullout from Syria’

The move came over strong objections from virtually everyone involved in the fight against Islamic State, officials said.

US Marines fire mortars from an undisclosed location in Syria (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl Gabino Perez via AP)
US Marines fire mortars from an undisclosed location in Syria (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl Gabino Perez via AP)

By Matthew Lee and Susannah George, Associated Press

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies, according to US and Turkish officials.

It also came over strong objections from virtually everyone involved in the fight against Islamic State, the officials added.

Mr Trump stunned his cabinet, politicians and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, two officials briefed on the matter said.

The December 14 call gives a view into a Trump decision with profound consequences, including the resignation of widely respected defence secretary Jim Mattis.

The White House rejected the description of the call from the officials but was not specific.

“In no uncertain terms, reporting throughout this story is not true,” National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Garrett Marquis said.

“It is clear from the context that this false version of events is from sources who lack authority on the subject, possibly from unnamed sources in Turkey.”

The State Department and Pentagon declined to comment on the account of the decision to withdraw the troops.

US troops first moved into Syria in 2015 to fight IS, a year after the Pentagon first launched a campaign of air strikes against the extremists in Iraq and Syria.

Local ground forces with close US support slowly pushed back IS in the years that followed, and by the beginning of 2018 the militants had lost more than 90% of the territory they once held.

Despite losing the physical caliphate, thousands of IS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria and the group continues to carry out insurgent attacks.

Local commanders warn the group could easily move back into territory it once held if American forces completely withdraw.

US soldiers survey the area during a combined joint patrol in Manbij, Syria (US Army photo by Spc Zoe Garbarino via AP)

The December 14 call came a day after secretary of state Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed to have the two presidents discuss Mr Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against US-backed Kurdish rebels in north-east Syria, where American forces are based. The NSC then set up the call.

Mr Pompeo, Mr Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Mr Trump to tell Mr Erdogan to back off, the officials said.

But the officials said Mr Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put US troops at risk, ignored the script.

Instead, the president sided with Mr Erdogan.

The officials said the conversation set off a frantic, four-day scramble to convince the president either to reverse or delay the decision to give the military and Kurdish forces time to prepare for an orderly withdrawal.

Mr Trump, however, was unmoved, they said.

A US soldier sits on an armoured vehicle on a road leading to the front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria (Hussein Malla/AP)

“The talking points were very firm,” said one of the officials, explaining that Mr Trump was advised to clearly oppose a Turkish incursion into northern Syria and suggest the US and Turkey work together to address security concerns.

“Everybody said push back and try to offer (Turkey) something that’s a small win, possibly holding territory on the border, something like that.”

Mr Erdogan, though, quickly put Mr Trump on the defensive, reminding him that he had repeatedly said the only reason for US troops to be in Syria was to defeat IS and that the group had been 99% defeated.

“Why are you still there?” the second official said Mr Erdogan asked Mr Trump, telling him that the Turks could deal with the remaining IS militants.

American troops look out towards the border with Turkey from a small outpost near the town of Manbij, northern Syria (Susannah George/AP)

With Mr Erdogan on the line, Mr Trump asked national security adviser John Bolton, who was listening in, why American troops remained in Syria if what the Turkish president was saying was true, according to the officials.

Mr Erdogan’s point, Mr Bolton was forced to admit, had been backed up by Mr Mattis, Mr Pompeo, US special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey and special envoy for the anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk, who have said that IS retains only 1% of its territory, the officials said.

Mr Bolton stressed, however, that the entire national security team agreed that victory over IS had to be enduring, which means more than taking away its territory.

Mr Trump was not dissuaded, according to the officials, who said the president quickly capitulated by pledging to withdraw, shocking both Mr Bolton and Mr Erdogan.

PA Media

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