ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — John Bolton’s bombshell book, “The Room Where It Happened,” hasn’t been released yet — but it is already making waves in Washington.
The much-anticipated book is causing such a stir that the White House sought a court ruling to block its release on the grounds that it contained sensitive information harmful to US national security — an argument that failed to convince a judge, who allowed the book to proceed with release next week.
Rudaw managed to acquire an advanced copy of the memoir, which divulges much about US President Donald Trump’s strategy in Syria at a critical juncture in the war, revealing an intricate game of political chess between Trump, Turkey, America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, and Iran.
The memoir is a tell-all expose of events within Trump’s inner circle. A staunch conservative seen as a “hawk” in the foreign policy arena, Bolton served as Trump’s national security advisor — a highly influential position close to the American president – from 2018 to 2019. Inside closed-door meetings, joining the president on Air Force One, and listening in on phone calls with heads of state, Bolton’s book recounts navigating a cutthroat world of influence-peddlers competing for the president’s attention – one Bolton eagerly plays along in, confessing that he had aspirations of becoming Secretary of State.
Frequently close to Trump’s ear, Bolton paints himself as putting out fires caused by an erratic and irrational president in the lead up to the withdrawal of US troops from northeast Syria in October 2019.
“It is difﬁcult beyond description to pursue a complex policy in a contentious part of the world when the policy is subject to instant modiﬁcation based on the boss’s perception of how inaccurate and often-already-outdated information is reported by writers who don’t have the Administration’s best interests at heart in the ﬁrst place,” Bolton describes in chapter seven. “It was like making and executing policy inside a pinball machine, not the West Wing of the White House.”
In Bolton’s telling of events, he is the architect of a policy strategy that tried, and ultimately failed, to maintain the US as a key player in Syria. He advised Trump through a critical period of the Syrian war, from April 2018 to September 2019 — spanning the height of battle against Islamic State (ISIS) to Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw American troops, imperiling their Kurdish allies in the country’s northeast.
Syrian Kurdish factions led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) fought alongside American forces since 2014, when Coalition air power came to the rescue of embattled YPG forces at the critical battle for the city of Kobane in northern Syria. This helped turn the tide that made the YPG, a leading continent of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) created in 2015, a crucial US ally.
Bolton describes Trump as focused intently on keeping his campaign promise of an “America first” foreign policy, which comes to a critical juncture in late 2018. With ISIS mostly defeated, and Turkey threatening to launch an invasion over its southern border into northeast Syria to target Kurdish factions it views as terrorists, the situation was a powder keg waiting to explode.
“This is our Mexico border on steroids,” Bolton said of the political tension over Turkey’s increasing threats to go after Kurdish forces in Syria.
Speaking of Ankara’s relationships with the Kurds, Bolton describes Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “purportedly interested in destroying the caliphate, but his real enemy was the Kurds, who, he believed with some justifications, were allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.”
Bolton recalls several attempts to dissuade Trump from allowing a Turkish invasion, describing it as a “personal crisis” for him — not out of any fealty to Syrian Kurds, who for the first time in their history of persecution under the regime of Syrian dictator and US enemy Bashar al-Assad, had risen to a position of power and prominence — rather, Bolton argued that maintaining an American troop presence in Syria would combat Iran, whose forces factor prominently in the Syrian conflict and would be waiting in the wings to fill the gap if the SDF were to disintegrate.
But the president was not convinced. Bolton recalls Trump saying: “I want to get out of these horrible wars [in the Middle East].” Bolton continues: “He said his advisors were divided into two categories, those who wanted to stay ‘forever,’ and those who wanted to stay ‘for a while.’ By contrast, Trump said, ‘I don’t want to stay at all. I don’t like the Kurds. They ran from the Iraqis, they ran from the Turks, the only time they don’t run is when we’re bombing all around them with F-18’s.”
Insisting on a rushed withdrawal of American forces from Syria, the American military had no choice but to faithfully follow the orders of the commander-in-chief, even if their carefully-studied plans of the situation on the ground are thrown to the wind in favor of Trump’s political whims.
Bolton, for his own part, also viewed the US alliance with the SDF as a “strategic partnership” and little more.
“Why we were affiliated with one terrorist group in order to destroy another stemmed from Obama’s failure to see Iran was a much more serious threat, now and in the future. Many parties to this conflict opposed ISIS […] Tehran, however, unlike Obama, was also focusing on the next way, the one after ISIS was defeated,” he wrote.
“It was complicated, but what was not complicated was the strong sense of loyalty to Kurds who had fought with us against ISIS, and fear that abandoning them was not only disloyal but would have severely adverse consequences for any future effort to recruit allies who might later be seen as expendable,” Bolton added.
A critical moment in the shift away from America’s ascendancy in Middle East power dynamics came in December 2018. While attempting to negotiate a “safe zone” along the Syria-Turkey border that would satisfy America’s NATO ally and also stave off the renewed warfare US officials feared would result between Turkey and the Kurds, Trump called Erdogan to negotiate a deal.
Bolton recalls the phone conversation:”Trump said that, first, he wanted Erdogan to get rid of ISIS, and that we would provide assistance if Turkey [sic] need it. Second, he pressed Erdogan not to go after the Kurds and kill them, noting that a lot of people liked them for fighting with us for years against ISIS. Turkey and the Kurds should go after the remaining ISIS forces together. Trump acknowledged that such a strategy might be a change for Erdogan, but he stressed again how much support there was for the Kurds in the United States,” he writes in chapter seven.
Erdogan gave Trump all the assurances he wanted to hear, Bolton recalls: “Erdogan took pains to say he loved the Kurds and vice versa, but added that the YPG-PYD-PKK (three Kurdish groups in Turkey and Syria) were manipulating the Kurds, and did not represent them, […] and had no intention of killing anyone but terrorists. We had heard all this before, and it was standard Erdogan regime propaganda.”
Weeks later, planes full of American officials were all set to visit Ankara to negotiate a grand bargain with the Turks. Bolton’s contingent was prepared to go to bat for their Kurdish allies, but it didn’t hold all the cards. Bolton describes James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Turkey under President George W. Bush, as being close to Ankara’s sensibilities, and having “no lost love for the Kurds.”
The SDF, represented by General Mazloum Abdi, had little sway in the talks. But Bolton thought “Mazloum’s options were quite limited, and that he might as well consider some insurance now,” estimating that YPG would go along with the plan if the US could get Ankara to agree.
For Ankara, any compromise with forces led by Abdi, a 20-year veteran of the PKK, was a non-starter. Ahead of the crucial meeting staffers from the White House, the State Department, and Department of Defense scrambled to get on the same page to present a unified front to their Turkish counterparts. Then, Trump’s envoy to Syria entered with a surprise curveball.
“Contrary to the statement of principles, Jim Jeffrey circulated a color-coded map showing which parts of northeastern Syria he proposed to allow Turkey to take over and which the Kurds could retain,” Bolton writes.
At the meeting, Ambassador Jeffrey — who succeeded staunch YPG ally Brett McGurk in his position — ended by handing out the draft of the agreement to be presented to the Turks. Dissatisfied, Bolton writes: “I added a new sentence to make clear we didn’t want to see the Kurds mistreated and took pains to show we didn’t accept a Turkish presence, military or otherwise, in northeastern Syria.”
But the meeting never took place. At the last moment, Erdogan canceled the state visit, set to take place on January 8, 2019 and instead gave a fiery speech to parliament vowing that compromise with the US position on Syrian Kurds was impossible.
When push came to shove, Bolton writes in his memoir, Trump had no desire to take the issue to task with Erdogan, whom he saw as primarily focused on domestic politics. He quotes Trump as saying: “We don’t want to be involved in a civil war. They’re natural enemies. The Turks and the Kurds have been fighting for many years. We’re not getting involved in a civil war, but we are finishing off ISIS.”
The SDF eventually did push through on a “safe zone” in northeast Syria by August 2019. Kurdish forces pulled back 5 km from the border and destroyed their own fortifications, while US-Turkish joint patrols filled in the gap.
The next month, in September, John Bolton was fired from his job as national security advisor.