Former US envoy argues ‘Afghan’ model to attrition Iran in Syria

James Jeffrey was widely critiqued for supporting policies aligned with Turkey during his years at the helm of US Middle East policy.

A boy looks out from inside a tent in al-Roj camp, Syria, January 10, 2020. (photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
A boy looks out from inside a tent in al-Roj camp, Syria, January 10, 2020.
The former US envoy tasked with dealing with Syria and ISIS under the Trump administration praised President Donald Trump’s pro-Turkish policies on Syria and the Middle East in a recent piece in Foreign Affairs.
James Jeffrey was widely critiqued for supporting policies aligned with Turkey during his years at the helm of US Middle East policy. During that time, Trump twice claimed he would withdraw from Syria. Consequently, US partner forces were betrayed and bombed by Ankara.
The article praises Trump’s foreign policy, including macabre aspects of it, such as turning Syria into a kind of new 1980s Afghanistan. The Syrian war is a stalemate today, Jeffrey writes, adding: “Absent a negotiated solution, the messy war of attrition will likely continue, but that is what worked against the Soviets in Afghanistan.”
It is not clear what the word “worked” in this sentence means, since Afghanistan rapidly descended into war and chaos, was taken over by the Taliban and gave a safe haven to al-Qaeda, which then used its freedom of movement in Afghanistan to plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989, and the Taliban took Kabul in 1996.
Osama bin Laden was praised in Western media in 1993 as an “anti-Soviet warrior” putting his “army” on a road to peace. In 1998, al-Qaeda helped attack the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 200 people. The “anti-Soviet” warrior had turned his killing spree toward murdering Americans and Westerners, also targeting religious minorities all over the world.
In his new article, Jeffrey praises the US decision to rely on countries in the region, as opposed to the US taking the lead through “unilateral” action. “Trump also made clear that he would support Israeli and Turkish military actions against Iran and Russia in Syria and would rely primarily on the Gulf states, Jordan, Iraq and Israel to stand up to Tehran,” he writes.
The result of this policy, though, was internal administration infighting as some of its members were tasked with counterterrorism policy and others with an Iran-focused mission.
To create this policy salad, which was at times contradictory, the US ignored “domestic behavior” of countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This means the US ignored abuses of human rights, Turkey went on to ethnically cleanse Afrin in Syria, harass US allies, threaten to “liberate” parts of Jerusalem from Israeli control, host Hamas terrorists and purge hundreds of thousands and crush dissent and journalists. But for the Trump administration, this was fine, so long as regional countries shouldered the burden.
Jeffrey claims the US built a “resilient coalition even as it sought to reduce its direct commitment. Turkey and armed opposition elements in Syria worked with the United States to deny Assad a decisive military victory, and US-supported Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in the country further limited the regime’s military options.”
Jeffrey ignores US partners in eastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which defeated ISIS in Raqqa in 2017 and which US Central Command was working closely with and training. It’s clear from the article that preference was given to the US working with “Turkey and armed opposition elements in Syria.”
Some of these armed oppositionists were described by William Roebuck, the deputy US envoy to the coalition against ISIS, as “jihadi mercenaries” who attacked and ethnically cleansed Afrin in Syria, “dispossessing 170,000 people.” It’s hard to understand why one part of the US diplomatic team wanted to work with armed religious extremists who were attacking minorities in one part of Syria, while another part was working with the victims of their attacks.
This policy, which Jeffrey appears to praise as having worked, often worked against itself. Jeffrey writes that Turkey was opposed to the “United States local Syrian-Kurdish partner in the northeast [Syria], because the Syrian Democratic Forces’ link to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK complicated relations with Turkey.”
This tension led to “a brief military and diplomatic incident in October 2019.” The  “incident” was Turkey’s demand that the US withdraw, followed by an attack on the SDF, which were working with the US. Turkey bombed civilians and sent extremists to murder unarmed people, including Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish woman who ran a local political party.
Turkey forced 200,000 people to flee their homes and then signed a deal with Russia in which the Syrian regime and Russia would take over some areas from which the US withdrew and Turkey would depopulate the rest of Kurdish minorities.
This is an “incident” the way the German invasion of Czechoslovakia or partition of Poland in 1939 was an “incident.” The “incident” enabled Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime to benefit while the US lost territory and friends and betrayed partner forces. In Washington, Congress was outraged and wondered how the president could abandon friends in Syria and not even inform US allies he was doing so.
The article’s general thrust, dismissing a serious US policy misstep in which hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes as an “incident” and appearing to argue that the Afghan model of US support for groups that became extremists “worked,” leaves many questions about what the US will do in Syria. It also reveals the degree to which there are voices in the US who have often advocated working with extremist elements, repackaged as “opposition” to Iran, using them to create quagmires for Iran or Russia.
This kind of “geopolitics” and “grand strategy” may sound good at think tanks in Washington, but history has shown that millions of people have suffered and minorities have been ethnically cleansed and experienced genocide when policy-makers think that extremists can be empowered to fight US adversaries. Bizarrely, others have argued that the destruction of ISIS could be a “strategic mistake” and that somehow ISIS was “hampering” Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.
The theory that “Sunni” extremists can be used against Iran has long been a strange talking point, myth and fantasy of policy-makers who seem to think that the Middle East is a chess board where one can play extremists off against each other. Millions of civilians killed and ethnically cleansed, minorities enslaved and their churches and shrines bombed and destroyed don’t seem to matter when it comes to “strategy.”
There is no evidence this strategy ever worked. Working with Turkish-backed “armed opposition” didn’t harm Iran; it only harmed America’s Kurdish partners since Turkey’s goal was to co-opt the Syrian rebels to fight Kurds so that Turkey could work with Iran and the Russians. Turkey today openly works with Russia against US interests in Syria.