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'I won't back down': Trump commits to Syria withdrawal in call with Erdogan

Turkish officials tell MEE the US pullout and a northern Syria security zone were on the agenda
Turkey and the United States are at odds over how to proceed in northern Syria (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - US President Donald Trump told his Turkish counterpart on Sunday that the United States wasn’t going to reverse its decision to withdraw militarily from Syria, even after an attack in the city of Manbij last week claimed the lives of four US servicemen, five local fighters, and 10 civilians.

According to a senior Turkish official, who spoke to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity due to government protocol, Trump said that he agreed with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s assessment that the attack was a provocation that aimed to influence the pullout decision.

“I won’t back down. I’m decisive, we will pull out,” Trump reportedly said.

The call came before Erdogan’s scheduled visit on Wednesday to discuss a 32km security zone in northern Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Turkish officials believe Putin is sympathetic to Trump’s security zone proposal, yet is seeking some concessions in opposition-held Idlib and in the south, around oil-rich Deir Ezzor.

Turkish media reports suggest the Erdogan and Putin meeting will likely be indicative of the tone of the next round of US-Turkish meetings. US National Security Adviser John Bolton and Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who joined the call on Sunday, are expected to get in touch with each other again in coming days to accelerate the US pullout from Syria.

Turkish and American officials have been trying to discuss the details of the security zone in the context of the US pullout but there is still no deal on how to address the key question on the status of Syrian-Kurdish militia, People’s Protection Units (YPG), a US ally on the ground.

US officials are contemplating a plan to facilitate a Turkish takeover with French and British forces in the non-urban areas, and deploy YPG rival Rojava Peshmerga forces in Kurdish-majority Syrian cities along the border.

Another proposal discussed by American officials is collecting heavy weaponry in Syrian-Kurdish areas in the north and maintaining YPG administrative rule in the cities on the condition of them not conducting attacks against Turkey.

Turkish officials find both alternatives unrealistic and unacceptable, according to Turkish daily Hurriyet, which first reported the contents of the Trump and Erdogan call.

Hurriyet said Turkey had proposed a two-step plan to US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford last week during a meeting in Brussels.

As part of this plan, Ankara suggested taking complete control of the contested city of Manbij - a new demand from Turkey, as a roadmap struck by Turkish and American officials in 2018 was limited only to the removal of YPG elements from the Manbij military council. This time, Turkey also wants to be present in the city.

The second part of the Turkish proposal offers to create joint Turkish-American working groups that would include intelligence and military officials to sort out the details of the security zone.

Turkish officials say they aim to create a framework similar to the ones implemented in Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army-held cities like Azaz and Jarablus, that would include local Kurdish and Arab components unaffiliated with the YPG.