'What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal'

Outgoing US envoy to Syria says he hid true number of troops from Trump team

Veteran diplomat James Jeffrey admits playing ‘shell games’ to hide the number of US soldiers in Syria following Trump’s order to withdraw; urges Biden not to rejoin Iran deal

US crewmen enter Bradley fighting vehicles at a US military base at an undisclosed location in Northeastern Syria on November 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
US crewmen enter Bradley fighting vehicles at a US military base at an undisclosed location in Northeastern Syria on November 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Veteran diplomat James Jeffrey, the outgoing US special representative in Syria, reportedly said he and his team were deliberately ambiguous in communications with senior Trump administration officials about the number of American troops in Syria.

President Donald Trump ordered withdrawals of US troops from northeast Syria, where they partnered with Kurdish forces to oppose the Islamic State, in 2018 and in October 2019, saying that the terror group had been defeated.

The withdrawal of the American soldiers was seen as a major shift in US policy, and a betrayal of the Kurds — longtime, close allies to the US whose territory was invaded by Turkey shortly after the US withdrawal. The Kurds were the main American partner in the fight against the Islamic State and bore the brunt of the fighting, losing thousands to the terror group.

“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey told the Defense One outlet in an interview published Thursday.

James Jeffrey, State Department special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, testifies before the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on October 23, 2019. (NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP)

The number of US soldiers remaining in Syria was “a lot more than” the 200 troops Trump agreed to leave there, Jeffrey said. The actual number of soldiers still deployed in the area is unknown.

The force left behind was able to keep the Islamic State down and prevent Russia and Syria from expanding their territory, Jeffrey said.

“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.”

As well as abandoning the Kurds, at the time of Trump’s announcement of the troop reduction, Israeli officials also warned that America’s absence would open the door for Tehran to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea. Over the last several years, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran.

Jeffrey is a former US ambassador to Baghdad and Ankara, and the Turkish-speaking diplomat was a key go-between with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Overall, Jeffrey praised Trump’s Middle East policy, saying the transactional approach made for a more stable region through deadlock, instead of trying to attempt major transformations.

“Stalemale and blocking advances and containing is not a bad thing,” Jeffrey said. “That’s the nature of realpolitik and great power foreign policy.”

US Vice President Joe Biden, right, is seen with Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey in Baghdad, Iraq, November 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

He also spoke highly of Trump’s successor, saying that if US allies in the Middle East “had to pick somebody else to come, it would be Joe Biden.”

He advised the Biden administration to continue the Trump administration’s policies, including by not reengaging with Iran on the nuclear deal.

“I think the stalemate we’ve put together is a step forward and I would advocate it,” Jeffrey said.

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