Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan scolded and snubbed visiting White House national security advisor John Bolton on Tuesday, saying that he had made a “very serious mistake” by demanding protection for U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Turkish media reported that Erdogan refused to meet with Bolton, though a Turkish presidential spokesman said the meeting was “never confirmed.”
Erdogan’s remarks, during a speech in Ankara, were a response to comments Bolton made Sunday in Israel outlining conditions for a U.S. troop departure from Syria. Those conditions included protection for thousands of Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been trained and armed by the United States to fight the Islamic State militant group.
Turkey, which views the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists, has vowed to launch a military operation against them in northeastern Syria, while also continuing the fight against Islamic State.
“The message that Bolton gave in Israel is unacceptable. It is not possible for us to swallow,” Erdogan said. He suggested that he might ignore the Trump administration’s request to delay the Turkish military operation.
“Very soon, we will take action to neutralize terrorist organizations in Syria,” Erdogan said. “We have completed our preparations for the operation to a large extent.”
The tensions were the latest complication for the Trump administration’s troubled plan to withdraw troops from Syria. Trump promised an immediate exit last month and said Islamic State had been defeated. Since then, senior U.S. officials have issued a series of statements raising doubts about a speedy departure and acknowledging that pockets of Islamic State fighters remain.
In Israel on Sunday, Bolton said that certain “objectives” much be achieved before a pullout of U.S. troops could take place. On Monday, Trump promised that the U.S. withdrawal would be “prudent” and occur at the “proper pace.”
Bolton had been expected to meet with Erdogan to discuss the fate of the Syrian Kurdish fighters, a U.S. official said, according to the Associated Press. Instead, Bolton met with Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. The two had a “productive discussion,” a spokesman for the National Security Council said.
Kalin later told the news media that Erdogan’s meeting with Bolton was “never confirmed.”
“Of course, Mr. Bolton’s comments from Israel did awaken reactions,” he added. “We all know this.”
In an opinion piece published Monday by the New York Times, Erdogan said Turkey would fill the vacuum left by the United States in Syria.
The U.S. withdrawal, he wrote, “must be planned carefully and performed in cooperation with the right partners to protect the interests of the United States, the international community and the Syrian people. Turkey, which has NATO’s second-largest standing army, is the only country with the power and commitment to perform that task.”