ANKARA, Turkey — President Donald Trump’s plans for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria were thrown into more uncertainty Tuesday as national security adviser John Bolton left the region after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet with him. Bolton’s mission to smooth a troop withdrawal with U.S. allies instead ended in only widening the rift with Turkey.
The path forward now appears more muddled than ever given Trump’s demand for assurances that Turkey protect Syrian Kurds after U.S. troops depart and Erdogan’s public snub of Bolton.
A senior administration official told NBC News that Trump thought he had gotten a commitment from Erdogan in a Dec. 23 phone call that Turkey would protect the Syrian Kurds, who have been a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State, after the American troops leave.
But a defiant Erdogan on Tuesday declined to meet with Bolton, who was in Turkey for talks about the withdrawal. In a speech to his political party, Erdogan said that Bolton had made a “serious mistake” in saying no U.S. troops would leave northeast Syria without such a commitment.
Erdogan said that Turkey would never compromise on the issue of the Syrian Kurds, or YPG Kurdish militia, which Turkey sees as a terrorist organization and part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.
Bolton met for more than two hours earlier in the day with his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, the senior administration official, who was at the meeting, said. During that meeting, Bolton presented Kalin with a list of five conditions the U.S. has for withdrawing troops from Syria — items agreed to by Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria and the fight against ISIS, according to the senior administration official.
The list includes “a negotiated solution to Turkish security concerns,” the official said, and stipulates: “We want the protection of all civilians, particularly local minority populations. We’ll cooperate with Turkey on de-conflicting the airspace over northeast Syria. The United States opposes any mistreatment of opposition forces who fought with us against ISIS.”
Turkey rejected the proposal.
“I think it’s fair to say that the United States stuck by the president’s request as reflected in these points that the Kurds, that the opposition forces that fought with us, not be mistreated,” the U.S. official said. “And the Turks stuck by their position that the PYD and the YPG are terrorist groups and they’re free to go after them.” (The PYD, or Democratic Union Party, is the political wing of the YPG.)
Kalin told Bolton that Erdogan had committed Turkey to not taking offensive action in Syria while U.S. forces were there, the official said.
The official said Erdogan’s speech on Tuesday was not at odds with the commitment Trump thought he had gotten from Erdogan during their Dec. 23 phone call.
National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said Erdogan called Kalin during their meeting and told him to send his regards to Bolton. However, Erdogan said he wouldn’t be able to spend any time with Bolton because he was headed to Parliament to deliver a speech.
A meeting between Bolton and Erdogan was never confirmed, a U.S. official said, but administration officials had said one was expected.