Instead, during a lengthy phone call earlier this month, Trump shocked even those in his inner circle by yielding to a suggestion from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse the Pentagon’s Syrian strategy, handing the Turkish president his biggest diplomatic victory ever.
Erdogan pressed Trump on the Dec. 14 call to explain why American forces were still in Syria even after they met their objective of defeating Islamic State, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation.
Erdogan had a point about the defeat of ISIS, Trump said, repeating his long-held conviction that American troops should be out of Syria anyway, according to the people, including an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing the call.
Then the American president dropped a bombshell, asking National Security Adviser John Bolton — whom he addressed as “Johnny” — about the feasibility of an immediate pullout, according to two of the people. He got a reassuring “yes” in response and the ball started rolling, the people said.
Days later, Trump announced the pullout of all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, facing withering criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for leaving a key part of the Middle East exposed to Russian and Iranian influence. Then on Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned.
While Trump faced political heat, Erdogan became a hero at home, seen as a leader who got his way with the world’s biggest superpower by convincing Washington to end its support for Turkey’s nemesis in Syria, a Kurdish militant group called the YPG. Erdogan says the group — which has allied with America for some of the toughest fighting in northern Syria — is linked to domestic terrorists he has long sought to wipe out.
The developments illustrate how Erdogan has managed to become a more central player in both Mideast politics and U.S. foreign policy, capitalizing on an American president eager to fulfill promises to extricate American troops from Middle East quagmires. They come just months after Trump and Erdogan were facing off over new American tariffs, Turkey’s refusal to release an American pastor and Erdogan’s demands that the U.S. extradite a cleric it views as behind a failed 2016 coup.