By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book holds the key to how US foreign policy was crafted at a key moment in American history. After decades of US involvement in the Middle East, from the era of JFK and Nixon to Raegan, Bush and Obama, the Trump administration wanted to drawdown US forces and outsource the Middle East to several countries.In May 2017, not long after coming into office, US President Donald Trump met in Saudi Arabia with numerous Arab and Muslim world leaders. This meeting included a famous photo of Trump with the Saudi king and Egyptian leader. It looked like this might be the pillar of US policy, one rooted in Israel, the peace deal with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This would involve Bahrain and the UAE as well, and Qatar, where the US has bases. In the wake of that meeting Riyadh broke relations with Qatar and sought to press its advantage. This backfired and many Washington pro-Qatar insiders were mobilized to make Saudi Arabia appear unstable.
It is important to recall that back in the early months of the Trump administration Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believed he could influence the White House. He had friends in the administration and a trip to Washington was made in May 2017. That trip became an embarrassment after Turkish presidential security attacked US protesters and police. Ankara knew it would have to work harder. It held some cards, including a US pastor it had detained. It would break the Trump administration by holding out a deal. Trump likes deals, so Ankara would offer a deal: Give US Syria policy to Turkey.The US was busy mopping up ISIS in 2017. It should be recalled that at this time the US neglected to back a Kurdish referendum on independence in Iraq in September 2017 and instead enabled Iranian-backed militias to attack Kurds in Sinjar and Kirkuk. In January Turkey invaded the Kurdish area of Afrin and drove 160,000 Kurds out of the area. Turkey claimed the US was training “terrorists” in eastern Syria by working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Kurds. The US said the SDF was the main hammer to defeat ISIS. The US was rapidly leaving behind its Syria policy. It ended support for Syrian rebels and even though it carried out airstrikes on Assad’s regime, it was willing to let Assad take back much of the country. Russia had encouraged the US to take part in talks at Astana with Turkey and Iran about Syria, but the US didn’t go. The US also didn’t push its Syrian Kurdish partners to take part in political discussions in Geneva.The Kirkuk attack in which Iranian-backed militias push back US-aligned Kurds in the fall of 2017 was a temporary victory for Iran because soon Iran would find out the US was leaving the Iran deal. Bolton was brought in as national security advisor in April 2018. This then begins a crucial moment in US policy in the Middle East.When Bolton came in the US was about to leave the Iran deal and Assad was about to reconquer southern Syria. ISIS would be defeated fully by March 2019. Syria loomed large. The US under Trump inherited a successful anti-ISIS policy in Syria. The Obama era coalition to defeat ISIS was a US success story. But Turkey’s friends in Washington were working to sabotage US efforts to create stability in eastern Syria because they viewed the success in Syria as an Obama program.A theory was presented to the Trump administration: dismantle Obama’s Middle East policies, starting with the Iran deal and then Syria. The US role in eastern Syria with Kurdish forces was said to be linked to Iran. How exactly it was linked to Iran was unclear. As long as the SDF and US forces were defeating ISIS there were no Iranians in eastern Syria. The US military thought this policy was excellent. But Trump was falling out of love with his team of generals, such as Jim Mattis at the Defense Department. He thought they weren’t tough enough on Iran.Bolton was an Iran hawk. But he also understood that Turkey was not necessarily an ally against Iran. Turkey traded with Iran and Russia, and Turkey supported the Iran Deal and opposed sanctions. Turkey’s sole goal was to dismantle Kurdish gains in Syria, alleging they were “terrorists” even though there was never a terror attack on Turkey from Kurdish forces in Syria. But for those like Bolton these Kurds, some affiliated with the YPG which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), were terrorists. Why would the US work with one terrorist group to fight ISIS? That was Obama’s failure “to see Iran was much more serious threat, now and in the future,” Bolton writes in his new book, according to an account published at the National Interest. But Bolton understood the US should not abandon Kurds who had fought ISIS and saved Yazidis from genocide.Bolton’s account shows a US government fighting against itself on Syria policy. This had happened before during the Obama administration in 2016 when US Secretary of State John Kerry had appeared to back Turkey against the US-backed SDF in Manbij. US-backed Syrian rebels clashed with US-backed SDF. The US actually almost ended up fighting itself on the ground. Now in 2018 the US would do the same. Mattis wanted to defeat ISIS. Bolton wanted to move the ship of US policy to confront Iran. He said in September 2018 talks with Israel and others that the US would stay in Syria until Iran left.But Bolton had another problem at the State Department. Former US ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey would become anti-ISIS envoy when Obama holdover Brett McGurk left in 2018. Mattis also left. Jeffrey would now hold the reins of Syria policy. Bolton writes, according to The National Interest, that Jeffrey was a “chronic State Department affliction where the foreign perspective becomes more important than that of the US.” It appears Jeffrey “had no love lost for the Kurds,” as if the entire 25 million Kurdish people, were in the way of US policy. Indeed, for career US diplomats, the Kurdish minority in the Middle East have generally been seen as in the way. They were supposed to be assimilated or removed violently and made to get out of the way so the major countries could do politics.The US worked with Saddam Hussein, who gassed Kurds, and the US had no problem with warming to Assad’s regime, that denied Kurds citizenship. Whereas the US cared about Arab minority rights in Israel, it never dared to tell Turkey about Kurdish minority rights. US policy was essentially a Turkey nationalism-first policy.According to an account at Ahval, Bolton describes Turkey’s president shouting at and ordering the US president what to do in Syria. Turkey, likely with US diplomats pulling hard for Turkey’s cause, even if it meant harming US interests, got the White House to agree to outsource Syria policy to Turkey. The result would be the unleashing of Turkish-backed extremists to attack Kurds in Syria in October 2019. By that time Bolton would be gone from office.Bolton’s tenure was short but was during a momentous and important period of Trump’s presidency as Trump shifted his foreign policy from one rooted in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to one rooted in a Turkey-first policy where the Middle East would largely be turned over to Ankara piece by piece. First Syria, then northern Iraq and Libya. Turkey supports Hamas, so it was not clear what the US administration will do when Turkey demands the US also work with Hamas.Bolton’s account notes that Ankara kept demanding to invade Syria due to domestic politics. The US played for time. But Jeffrey is portrayed as enabling Turkey to take over parts of eastern Syria. The book recounts Jeffrey showing up with “a color-coded map showing which parts of northeastern Syria he proposed to allow Turkey to take over,” according to the National Interest. The timeline hints at internal US duplicity, where officials were working behind the scenes with Turkey as Ankara drew up invasion plans, while the US military was kept in the dark as were Kurdish partner forces on the ground. It may never be known how Turkey got parts of the US government to decide that Turkey should take over Syria and sabotage stable areas the US had worked hard to liberate from ISIS with partners on the ground.It may never be known how and when Turkish officials huddled with US counterparts who are pro-Turkey and put Turkey’s interests first to draw up these ideas. It may also not be known why the White House shifted slowly towards a Turkey-first policy in which Ankara would get a final say over US policies. That may just be a result of a policy that wants to withdraw from the region and a feeling that handing Syria to Turkey is better than handing it to Russia and Iran. In the end the Turkish invasion in October 2019 and the US withdrawal from part of Syria ended up with Turkey signing a deal with Russia, so the US did end up handing it to Russia and Iran, as part of Turkey misleading the White House that it would fight ISIS and balance Iran.Bolton’s account is important because it illustrates a unique time in US history in the Middle East, one of the first time the US worked with partner forces and abandoned them and one of the few times the US sacrificed to defeat an enemy, only to hand a stable area to another country to be destabilized.