President Donald Trump and senior defense officials met to discuss the planned Syria troop withdrawal Wednesday, as his national security team continued to send conflicting signals about the planned pullback that has roiled relations with NATO-ally Turkey.
Even as administration officials continue to insist the US will leave Syria, they are indicating -- in part by adding conditions for withdrawal without timelines -- that the American presence will continue far longer than the President's initial pledge of departure "now" or even by the 120-day deadline the White House offered later.
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The planned withdrawal has unsettled allies, undermined the Kurds and deeply roiled relations with Turkey, an issue Trump was expected to discuss during his Wednesday meeting with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly blasted national security adviser John Bolton Tuesday for saying the US withdrawal was contingent upon Turkey's pledge not to attack US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria once American troops go home.
Bolton outlined a series of US objectives in a meeting with the Turks this week, according to a senior administration official briefed on objectives outlined at the meeting. The official said there's a long process ahead, not only for logistical reasons, but because the diplomacy will take time.
"This is the start of a conversation," the official said.
According to the official, Bolton told the Turks the US intends to:
- Seek a "negotiated solution" to Turkish security concerns and the protection of all civilians, particularly local minority populations, which indicates the US-backed Kurdish fighters
- Maintain the US presence at the southern base, al-Tanf, at this time. The US will pursue the withdrawal of Iranian backed forces from Syria and a political solution in Syria.
- Withdraw its D-ISIS forces in northeast Syria "in a deliberate, orderly and strong manner."
- "Defeat the remaining ISIS caliphate on the way out," inflict damage on other ISIS targets throughout the withdrawal period and "maintain whatever capability is necessary for operations needed to prevent ISIS resurgence."
- Cooperate with Turkey and other members of the anti-ISIS coalition to continue operations against the terrorist group and de-conflict the airspace over northeast Syria.
- Oppose any mistreatment of opposition forces who fought with the US against ISIS.
- Oppose the release of ISIS foreign terrorists held by the Syrian opposition forces, which the US says is unacceptable, and make it a top priority to pursue "an appropriate disposition of those prisoners."
The fact that Bolton laid the demand for protection of Kurdish fighters as a condition for US withdrawal from Syria sparked Erdogan's anger. Turkey considers several Kurdish groups -- including the People's Protection Units, also known as the YPG -- to be terrorist organizations.
The YPG is the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is the main US partner on the ground in the battle against ISIS and has controlled a large swath of northern Syria for the past several years.
Erdogan told the Turkish Parliament that Bolton's conditions about the Kurds were "not acceptable" and a "serious mistake," adding that "it is not possible for me to swallow this."
Despite Erdogan's remarkable diplomatic rebuke, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday downplayed the friction.
"These are folks that have fought with us and that it's important that we do everything we can to make sure that those folks that fought with us are protected and Erdogan has made commitments, he understands that -- I think he uses the language that he has no beef with the Kurds -- we want to make sure that that's the case," Pompeo told the traveling press before departing Erbil in northern Iraq.
In their Wednesday meeting, Trump, Shanahan and Dunford were also set to begin formulating a more fine-tuned withdrawal plan, according to several defense and administration officials.
US Central Command has come up with an execution plan in order to safely withdraw troops there, officials tell CNN. But now, with the possibility the drawdown will be slowed, the military has to determine timing and phasing based on what the President finally approves.
Military planners calculate the Pentagon might have to send hundreds of additional forces into Syria on a variety of missions in order to safely withdraw more than 2,000 US ground forces there, according to two US officials.
Officials have told CNN that one way they expect to demonstrate progress in meeting Trump's wish is to start discussing percentages of military equipment that will be pulled out of Syria -- even though its expected no actual troops are coming out soon.
In a statement, the Pentagon said that, "Out of concern for operational security, we will not be discussing specific troop movements or timelines, but we do expect to provide a periodic update on progress regarding percentages of equipment removed from Syria."
For now, two US defense officials said that observation posts in northern Syrian that were established by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis' order are still in place and manned by US troops. The point of those posts, the sources said, is in part to prevent Turkey from clashing with the Kurdish-led troops allied with the US.