Pompeo discusses US drawdown in Syria with Turkish counterpart
Posted January 12, 2019 7:40 a.m. EST
(CNN) — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called his Turkish counterpart Saturday to discuss Syria, a conversation that comes at a time of increased tensions between the two NATO allies over the planned US withdrawal from that country.
"The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke to Pompeo about the latest developments in Syria," said a brief statement from Turkey's foreign ministry.
Pompeo's call with Cavusoglu came as the top US diplomat continues a marathon Middle East tour, which has taken him to Cairo, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He is expected to meet Sunday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh.
In a high-profile speech Thursday in Cairo, Pompeo insisted there had been no contradiction in the shifting US strategy in Syria or confusion about it despite the shocked response to the move from allies in the Middle East and beyond.
He told Egyptian state television a day later he planned to speak to the Turkish foreign minister to come to a "common understanding" about the execution of President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from Syria in an "orderly and productive" way.
US demands that the Syrian Kurds be protected after US forces leave have worsened already strained relations with Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly blasted US national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday for saying the US withdrawal was contingent upon Turkey's pledge not to attack US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria once American troops go home.
Turkey considers several Kurdish groups -- including the People's Protection Units, also known as the YPG -- to be terrorist organizations.
The YPG is the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is the main US partner on the ground in the battle against ISIS and has controlled a large swath of northern Syria for the past several years.
Pompeo sought to play down the friction with Turkey, however, in remarks to reporters Wednesday before departing Erbil in northern Iraq.
"These are folks that have fought with us and that it's important that we do everything we can to make sure that those folks that fought with us are protected and Erdogan has made commitments, he understands that -- I think he uses the language that he has no beef with the Kurds -- we want to make sure that that's the case," Pompeo said.
Kurds on the front lines of the fight against ISIS in Syria told CNN their morale has taken a hit as they seek protection by strengthening other alliances -- including with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russians.
Meanwhile, US Gulf allies, including the UAE, have been ramping up their engagement with the Assad regime since Trump announced the US drawdown on December 19, as US leverage on Syria is now seen as waning.
CNN reported Friday that the withdrawal of US military ground equipment from Syria has begun.
However, there's still no clarity on when troops might withdraw, with both Pompeo and Bolton refusing to commit to a withdrawal timetable in recent days.