Retiring diplomat James Jeffrey has said that the U.S. routinely misled senior leaders about troop levels in Syria.
“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey told Defense One in an interview on Nov. 12. The actual number of troops in northeast Syria is “a lot more than” the two hundred troops U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to leave there in 2019.
Jeffrey also recommended that the incoming Joe Biden administration sticks with Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
Trump’s abruptly-announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria remains perhaps the single-most controversial foreign policy move during his first years in office, and for Jeffrey, “the most controversial thing in my fifty years in government.”
The order, first handed down in December 2018, led to the resignation of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. It catapulted Jeffrey, then Trump’s special envoy for Syria, into the role of special envoy in the counter-ISIS fight when it sparked the protest resignation of his predecessor, Brett McGurk.
For Jeffrey, the incident was far less cut-and-dry — but it is ultimately a success story that ended with U.S. troops still operating in Syria, denying Russian and Syrian territorial gains and preventing ISIS remnants from reconstituting.
In 2018 and again in October of 2019, when Trump repeated the withdrawal order, the president boasted that ISIS was “defeated.” But each time, the president was convinced to leave a residual force in Syria and the fight continued.
“What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal,” Jeffrey said. “When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out. In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story.”
Officially, Trump last year agreed to keep about 200 U.S. troops stationed in northeast Syria to “secure” oil fields held by the United States’ Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS. It is generally accepted that the actual number is now higher than that — anonymous officials put the number at about 900 today — but the precise figure is classified and remains unknown even, it appears, to members of Trump’s administration keen to end the so-called “forever wars.”
As he exits public service again, Jeffrey is hardly derisive of the president.
The career ambassador’s 2018 decision to serve in the Trump administration despite his political opposition to the president — and to champion his policies on the way out the door — is on-brand for an official described by colleagues as the consummate apolitical public servant. Jeffrey offers no polemics on the president’s character, even as he says he stands by his decision to sign the 2016 open letter that said Trump was “erratic” and “acts impetuously.”
“I know what I did in 2016, I do not disagree with that,” said Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “I was following closely the situation with Iran, Iraq and Syria, and I was appalled that we didn’t have a more coherent policy. This wasn’t a political decision.”
Jeffrey now says that Trump’s “modest” and transactional approach to the Middle East has yielded a more stable region than either of his predecessors’ more transformational policies. President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech heralding the seismic U.S. intervention into Iraq and President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo proclaiming a “new beginning” with the Muslim world represent an approach to the Middle East that “made things worse” and “weakened us,” Jeffrey said. Trump’s administration, he said, has looked at the Middle East through a geostrategic lens and kept its focus on Iran, Russia, and China, while keeping the "metastatic disease of Islamist terror in check."
In much of Syria, the remaining U.S. troops maintain a fragile stability. Although U.S. diplomats are still painstakingly working to resettle thousands of ISIS families and relocate foreign jihadists still held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Jeffrey said the humanitarian situation is slowly improving and he has no concerns that the remaining detained ISIS militants will escape.
The Syria withdrawal announcement was roundly condemned even by members of Trump’s own administration as an abandonment of the SDF, which did the bulk of the on-the-ground fighting against ISIS.
'Nobody in Washington gave the Kurds a military guarantee against Turkey'
Jeffrey disputes the charge that the United States “abandoned” its Kurdish allies to a Turkish offensive. Although the United States gave the Kurds a military guarantee against Russian mercenaries operating in Syria, the Syrian government and ISIS, “nobody in Washington ever gave the Kurds a military guarantee against Turkey,” Jeffrey said.
“I cannot put my finger on it, [but] every Kurdish leader I know thinks that he or she was given such a guarantee by people in the field, and that had an impact on how they behaved including how they behaved vis-a-vis the Turks. So it was a very complicated political mess.”
Jeffrey doesn’t dispute that there was some chaos in the decision-making process. But he compared it to troop level fluctuations in Iraq under Bush or Obama’s surge into and simultaneous withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan.
“Look, there’s a surface chaos to every administration,” he said. “I’m not defending this gang, I’m just saying chaos is what I’ve experienced.”
If Jeffrey is complimentary of the Trump administration’s overall approach to the Middle East, he is equally sanguine about the incoming Biden administration.
“If [U.S. allies in the Middle East] had to pick somebody else to come, it would be Joe Biden,” Jeffrey said. “I can’t predict how Joe Biden would act [but] of all of his decisions that I was involved in, and there were many, he is more of a transactional guy by his nature.
“I can’t see him giving either the Bush speech or the Cairo speech. And that’s a good thing.”
Asked how he would advise the Biden administration when it takes over his portfolio, Jeffrey said he would urge the President-elect to stay the course laid out by Trump’s team. Some things the Biden team may want to undo — like the dismantling of the Iran nuclear deal — he suggests may now be impossible. But above all, don’t attempt “transformation.” Don’t try to “turn Syria into Denmark.” Stalemate is stability.
“I think the stalemate we’ve put together is a step forward and I would advocate it,” Jeffrey said.
“I’m just telling you the reality as I saw it. I’m not trying to do favors to anybody. Because it’s very important when the new team comes in, they don’t say, if it was made by Trump it has to be bad.”