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Administration Sends Mixed Messages On When Troops Will Leave Syria


President Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, was in Turkey today. He met his Turkish counterpart, but left without seeing Turkey's president, who is criticizing U.S. adjustments to the plan to get out of neighboring Syria. President Trump said last month the U.S. would quickly withdraw troops. Bolton has announced some conditions that need to be met first, which the Turkish president does not like at all.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock was recently in northeastern Syria. She's been covering this story a long time, and she's on the line. Hi, Ruth.


INSKEEP: How has the U.S. position evolved?

SHERLOCK: Well, so essentially what's happened in the last few days is that John Bolton has come out and said, well, actually, we're not going to withdraw as quickly as the president might have - well, he didn't directly contradict the president. But he said we are going to withdraw, but imposed conditions saying, well, actually, we need to protect our Kurdish allies with whom we've been fighting ISIS in northeast Syria. And we need to remain until ISIS is completely defeated. Of course, that's different to what President Trump said initially, which was that ISIS has been defeated and that U.S. troops would be withdrawn very quickly.

INSKEEP: And we can see here where Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be upset - the Turkish president - because Turkey wants to go after Syrian Kurds. They see the Kurds as enemies, as rivals, and yet they are allies of the United States. And the U.S. wants to protect them before the U.S. would withdraw.

SHERLOCK: Well, that's exactly right. That's what Bolton has said in the last few days, that they need to create some kind of an agreement that would protect the Kurdish forces. But then now, Turkey seems to have hit back today, as you said, by - with this apparent snub in his refusal to meet with Bolton even though he did meet with a counterpart. He says that this new suggestion of protecting these allies actually differs from what was promised to him in a phone call with President Trump on December 14.

He said that Turkey had pledged to take on the fight against ISIS and actually take control of this area, and that this was something that was - that he was - that he talked about with President Trump. But he said that - Erdogan said that despite the fact that we reached a clear agreement with Mr. Trump, different voices have raised - have been raised from within different echelons of the U.S. administration. So he's implying a split within the administration on what should happen next.

INSKEEP: Ruth, help us understand what Syrians are thinking about this, specifically these Syrian Kurds who fought alongside the United States, fought against ISIS, control a portion of Syria, are trying to hold off ISIS - the remnants of ISIS and also hold off Bashar al-Assad, who controls much of the rest of the country. Is it clear to them what the U.S. position is, given that the president has said different things and the president's advisers have said different things?

SHERLOCK: Certainly not when we met with them. And in recent conversations, they seem to be trying to kind of understand what was happening in Washington. They were so confused, at one point, officials actually asked me as a member of a U.S. media organization what I thought about what the president was saying.

Certainly, today, they've come out with a much clearer statement, saying - we would not - you know, they would be ready for any Turkish advance. They would not accept a kind of Turkish-controlled move by Turkey to control the parts of Syria they have won over from ISIS. They've lost a lot of blood in that fight. And they say that Turkey is a bigger threat to them than ISIS. And if they have to, they would rather strike a deal with the Syrian government to take over this area than with Turkey.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.