Geoff Earle — Daily Mail and Associated Press – Dec 21, 2018
–> Trump held a Friday call with Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan
–> Call was at instigation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
–> Meant to address Turkey’s plan to attack U.S.-backed rebels
–> The president ditched a script drafted by his aides
–> Turkish leader told him ISIS had been 99 per cent defeated
–> Pentagon approved a $3.5 billion Patriot missile sale to Turkey on Tuesday
President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to yank U.S. forces out of Syria came after a private call with the hard-line president of Turkey where the president ditched a script crafted by his aides and was told allies fighting alongside the U.S. were terrorists.
The fateful call occurred Friday, according to multiple press accounts, just as Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan publicly saber-rattling about a campaign to wipe out U.S.-allied Turkish forces in northeastern Syria.
The U.S. has relied on Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria to take out ISIS elements in a multi-year military campaign that Trump cheered on Twitter Friday.
Trump’s national security aides prepared a script for the call, which the president abandoned during his chat. Rather than pushing Erdogan, a NATO ally, to hold off on military action, the Turkish leader seized control of the phone call and declared the U.S. Syria mission virtually completed, even as he went after the United States’ kurdish allies.
He told Trump ‘that the U.S. must stop aiding terrorists in the region and do this as soon as possible,’ reported the pro-government Turkish paper Daily Sabah.
According to Turkey’s communications directorate, Erdogan was threatening to move military ‘at any moment.’
‘We talked to Trump. These terrorists have to leave areas east of the Euphrates. If they do not leave, we will dispatch them. Because they are disturbing us,’ he said.
On the call, Erdogan was able to seize control of the conversation by pointing to U.S. military success, saying the U.S. had already defeated 99 per cent of ISIS.
When he asked Trump ‘Why are you still there?’, it prompted Trump to pass on the query to his own security advisor, John Bolton, who was monitoring the call.
Sources on the call said Trump ‘quickly capitulated’ and yielded to Erdogan’s withdrawal demand, the Associated Press reported.
Critical to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign have been Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, consisting of arabs and kurds in Syria. The U.S. also backs People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which consists mostly of Kurds but who Turkey considers to close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as Military Times reported.
Adding further intrigue to how the decision came about is the State Department’s approval, announced Tuesday, of Turkey’s decision to spend $3.5 billion purchasing U.S.-made Patriot missile defense systems.
It came amid U.S. concerns Turkey might go with the Russian-made S-400 system, which in turn could allow the Russians to spy on NATO activities.
Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies, and over strong objections from virtually everyone involved in the fight against the Islamic State group, according to U.S. and Turkish officials.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, wasn’t present at a Tuesday White House meeting where the final decision ultimately got made.
‘We’ve been thinking that as the walls close in around Trump, we would have a ‘Wag the Dog’ scenario where he starts to lash out,’ Obama administration Pentagon official Derek Chollet told the New York Times. ‘But it won’t be getting us into wars — it will be the opposite.’
Adding to the intrigue, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that he has spoken to Trump Monday and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday and had been told of the U.S. plan – indicating that two foreign leaders may have been in the know before senior military and civilian officials did.
“In no uncertain terms, reporting throughout this story is not true,’ National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis told DailyMail.com, responding to questions about the call and accounts that emerged in AP reporting and Turkish media sources.
‘In no uncertain terms, reporting throughout this story is not true. 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,’ he added.
Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers 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 told The Associated Press.
The Dec. 14 call, described by officials who were not authorized to discuss the decision-making process publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, provides insight into a consequential Trump decision that prompted the resignation of widely respected Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. It also set off a frantic, four-day scramble to convince the president either to reverse or delay the decision.
The White House, State Department and Pentagon all declined to comment on the account of the decision to withdraw the troops, which have been in Syria to fight the Islamic State since 2015.
Despite losing the physical caliphate, thousands of IS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, and the group continues to carry out insurgent attacks and could easily move back into territory it once held if American forces withdraw.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arranged the Dec. 14 call a day after he had unsuccessfully sought clarity from Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu about Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based.
Pompeo, Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Trump to tell Erdogan to back off, the officials said.
But the officials said Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put U.S. troops at risk, ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan.
In the following days, Trump remained unmoved by those scrambling to convince him to reverse or at least delay the decision to give the military and Kurdish forces time to prepare for an orderly withdrawal.
‘The talking points were very firm,’ said one of the officials, explaining that Trump was advised to clearly oppose a Turkish incursion into northern Syria and suggest the U.S. 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.’
Erdogan, though, quickly put Trump on the defensive, reminding him that he had repeatedly said the only reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State and that the group had been 99 percent defeated. ‘Why are you still there?’ the second official said Erdogan asked Trump, telling him that the Turks could deal with the remaining IS militants.
With Erdogan on the line, 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. Erdogan’s point, Bolton was forced to admit, had been backed up by Mattis, Pompeo, U.S. special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey andspecial envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk, who have said that IS retains only 1 percent of its territory, the officials said.
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.
Trump was not dissuaded, according to the officials, who said the president quickly capitulated by pledging to withdraw, shocking both Bolton and Erdogan.
Caught off guard, Erdogan cautioned Trump against a hasty withdrawal, according to one official. While Turkey has made incursions into Syria in the past, it does not have the necessary forces mobilized on the border to move in and hold the large swaths of northeastern Syria where U.S. troops are positioned, the official said.
The call ended with Trump repeating to Erdogan that the U.S. would pull out, but offering no specifics on how it would be done, the officials said.
Over the weekend, the national security team raced to come up with a plan that would reverse, delay or somehow limit effects of the withdrawal, the officials said.
On Monday, Bolton, Mattis and Pompeo met at the White House to try to plot a middle course. But they were told by outgoing chief of staff John Kelly and his soon-to-be successor Mick Mulvaney that Trump was determined to pull out and was not to be delayed or denied, according to the officials. The trio met again on Tuesday morning to try to salvage things, but were again rebuffed, the officials said.
The White House had wanted to announce the decision on Tuesday – and press secretary Sarah Sanders scheduled a rare briefing specifically to announce it. But the Pentagon convinced Trump to hold off because the withdrawal plans weren’t complete and allies and Congress had not yet been notified, according to the officials. The first country aside from Turkey to be told of the impending pull-out was Israel, the officials said.
Word of the imminent withdrawal began to seep out early Wednesday after U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel started to inform his commanders on the ground and the Kurds of the decision.
Following the official announcement the White House emphasized that the U.S. will continue to support the fight against IS and remains ready to ‘re-engage’ when needed. But in a tweet, the president said U.S. troops would no longer be fighting IS on behalf of others.
‘Time to focus on our Country & bring our youth back home where they belong!’