US Syria envoy Jeffrey may leave post, concerns grow over US Syria role

James Jeffrey failed to stop the Turkish invasion of October 2019 and was seen as pro-Ankara, now questions remain about whether the US role in eastern Syria can protect Kurds and minorities.

James Jeffrey, U.S. State Department special representative for Syria Engagement; testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on President Trump's decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
James Jeffrey, U.S. State Department special representative for Syria Engagement; testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on President Trump's decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
US envoy James Jeffrey, who was known for constantly praising Turkey despite its increasing turn to aggressive militarism and threats against US partners, is leaving his post, reports said on Saturday.
Asharq al-Awsat reported that “US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey has contacted several European and Arab officials and Syrian opposition figures to inform them that this mission was coming to an end and that the US policy would not change if Joe Biden won the presidency.”
Jeffrey was brought in as US envoy to Syria in August 2018. He was seen as particularly pro-Turkey and sought to distance the US from Kurdish partners in eastern Syria, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, telling the Atlantic Council in December 2018 that the Syrian Kurds future would only be under the Syrian government, which, at the time, was led by Bashar al-Assad.
Jeffrey gave interviews to Turkish and other media that portrayed the US partnership with the SDF as temporary, transactional and tactical.  
Jeffrey’s dual role as head of the anti-ISIS mission, after Brett McGurk left in December 2018, and also as envoy to Syria, created a complex mission. On the one hand, he wanted to revive support for the Syrian opposition and on the other, he appeared to work with Turkey towards its demands for a “security” zone along northern Syria, which would mean displacing Kurds.
Turkey ethnically cleansed 180,000 Kurds in Afrin when it invaded the area and backed Syrian extremists to attack Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and other minorities and US President Donald Trump, after calls with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, decided to leave Syria in December 2018.
That decision by Trump led to a crisis in the anti-ISIS mission and the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis left his position, along with McGurk. However, the US didn’t leave Syria, instead Turkey began to order the US to change its Syrian policy. The US policy in Syria had shifted from 2012 when the US was backing the Syrian rebels, to 2014 when the US shifted to fighting ISIS.
The US backing of the Kurdish-led SDF was a phenomenal partnership and eastern Syria was liberated from ISIS. But some US officials who tend to put Turkey’s foreign policy first in Syria, wanted the US to abandon the SDF and work with Turkey.
Ankara, meanwhile, has recruited thousands of former Syrian rebels and encouraged their religious extremism as they vowed to kill “atheists” and “infidel Kurds.” This was an odd position for the US to be in, betraying its partners who it had asked to help fight ISIS to support Ankara-backed extremists who were ethnically-cleansing Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and other minorities.
The US had another problem with Ankara between 2018 and 2019. Turkey was harassing US soldiers, consular employees, detaining journalists and buying Russia’s S-400 air defense system. Turkey was also increasingly threatening US troops. Into all this Jeffrey had to navigate between Ankara, Washington and the existing US policy in eastern Syria.
The problem was that Jeffrey’s views on US policy were rarely well communicated, either to the White House, or via his boss US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or to the Pentagon. When Trump decided to withdraw from part of Syria in October 2019, testimony to the US Senate appeared to indicate Jeffrey wasn’t even told of the decision.
Trump did this several times, not telling key officials or US allies about reversals in Syria policy. This was partially due to how compartmentalized US policy has become, with the Pentagon running one war and the State Department, CIA and the White House running their own wars, with each having their own allies in various foreign governments, sometimes being lobbied by friends inside and outside DC, and competing interests leading to policy confusion and malaise.  
Nevertheless, Jeffrey was clear on several points. The US would work closely with Turkey, even though Turkey was increasingly anti-American. US National Security Advisor John Bolton described Jeffrey as a “chronic State Department affliction where the foreign perspective becomes more important than that of the US.” He had “no love lost for the Kurds,” Bolton wrote.
Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, said Jeffrey had “long carried Turkey’s cause both inside government and out.” According to Rubin’s statement made in the summer of 2020, Jeffrey had sought to have cooperation with Turkey across the board on all Syrian issues.
However, the US military officials who had fought alongside the SDF, often as part of special operations and later with Central Command, did not tend to share the view that the relationships was just tactical. That meant the pro-Turkey elements of the State Department were working often with Ankara and with groups that both hated Kurds and tended to hate minorities and even hate the US, seeing them, oddly, as long-term assets, whereas those in eastern Syria who had actually fought ISIS alongside the US, were seen as “temporary.”
This led to policy disaster in October 2019. Turkey had been threatening to invade Syria since January 2019, believing it had a green light from the Trump administration to ethnically cleanse Kurds as it had done in Afrin. Turkey’s leader told the UN that it would create a “buffer” or “security” zone across all Kurdish areas of northern Syria, from Afrin to Kobani and Qamishli and Derik. Kurds would be removed and Syrian Arab refugees would be resettled in their place.
On September 27, 2019 Reuters reported on Turkey’s $27 billion colonization plan, termed a “house project.” To get into Syria Turkey sold the US on having joint patrols and a “security mechanism” after threatening the US that it would invade in July and August 2019. The US consented, and European Command, which was closer to Turkey because Turkey was still a “NATO ally,” was sent to work out the details. Helicopter patrols began. The SDF, the US partners on the ground, were ordered to dismantle any fortifications.
Turkey built up forces near Tel Abyad and other areas on the border, with Turkey’s press saying it would invade and defeat the US-backed “terrorists.” Turkey had been accusing the US of backing a “terrorist army” in Syria since 2018. Instead of responding to Turkey’s threats, the Trump administration kept taking Erdogan’s calls and decided to trust Turkey to take over the US anti-ISIS campaign.
From the White House’s point of view, the Kurds were unhelpful and Bolton’s book makes it clear that Trump didn’t like Kurds very much. Also, the US administration believed these were ancient hatreds and Syria was a “far away” place and an “endless war” and that it was primarily “sand, blood and death.”
But while the White House thought Syria was just sand and death, the reality on the ground was that young Syrians, many of whom helped the US fight ISIS, had hope that the US would save them from the Assad regime.
Hevrin Khalaf, a young Syrian woman, had worked with the US and those like her never believed US forces and the Stars and Stripes would suddenly pick up shop and let Turkey’s threats of an invasion emerge. But in October 2019, Turkey ordered the US to leave, reportedly threatening to drive over US positions along the border, and the White House concurred.
The gate was opened and within days, Ankara-backed jihadists had hunted down Khalaf and beat her to death by her vehicle. Other civilians were tortured, murdered and kidnapped. Turkish-backed Syrian extremists targeted the Christian town of Tel Tamr, and as in Afrin, promised to kidnap women for ransom, much as ISIS had done. Around 200,000 had to flee the invasion.
Today, Serekaniye and Tel Abyad and other areas occupied by Turkey are full of extremists and lawlessness. Women are kidnapped and kept in secret prisons. Most Kurdish minorities, former US friends and partners, and non-Muslim minorities have been ethnically cleansed.  
Jeffrey, in his last weeks, has been promising Turkey that the US will root out the “PKK” in eastern Syria. He has condemned Russian attacks on Idlib and has wanted Syria to become a “quagmire” for Russia, but his work with Turkey on Syria policy didn’t seem to result in that. Turkey prefers to work with Russia and Iran against the US in Syria, and Turkey signs deals with Russia, such as for the S-400.
When the US left northern Syria in the wake of the Turkish invasion in October 2019, it was Ankara that immediately signed a deal with Russia to partition eastern Syria. Oddly, in the name of making Syria a quagmire for Russia, some US policymakers handed Syria to Russia and Iran, and empowered Turkish-backed extremists.  
Asharq al-Awsat says that Jeffrey contributed to formulating US policy towards Syria and this included supporting the Caesar Act against the Syrian regime, “keeping contact with Arab and European states to prevent normalization with Damascus, supporting Turkey in northeastern Syria, and backing Israel in its airstrikes on Iranian sites.”
Jeffrey wanted to stop countries from attending a recent conference in Damascus on Syrian refugees, which reports say he succeeded in doing. Ahval web site reported that Jeffrey said recently that the US troop presence will remain in eastern Syria regardless of the election outcome. However, his comments about removing the PKK presence are less clear. Some US officials who are close to Turkey, have long viewed the SDF as linked to the PKK. Joel Rayburn, Jeffrey’s deputy, may assume his role.
Meanwhile, US deputy envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, William Roebuck, has been pushing intra-Kurdish talks aimed at brokering a deal between various Kurdish parties in eastern Syria.  
The talks to bring Kurdish groups like PYD and ENKS together in eastern Syria is part of the overall policy of the US trying to reduce claims that the “PKK” has a role in eastern Syria. Turkey has long claimed that the presence of “Kurdish terrorists” gives it a right to invade and destroy Kurdish areas of Syria.
However, there have been no terror attacks on Turkey from Syria. The only terrorists who went to Turkey from Syria were those linked to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. ISIS members traveled through Turkey to Idlib and many fled the US-backed SDF offensive on Raqqa to get to Turkey.  
The US-backed talked between PYD and ENKS might be to forestall more Turkish invasions. However there are deeper issues at work. Russia and Turkey now broker deals over Kurdish cities like Kobani, so it is more up to Moscow.
Oddly, the Turkish invasion, which Jeffrey failed to stop in October 2019, empowered Russia, even though Jeffrey had appeared to assert that the US working closely with Turkey would create a quagmire for Moscow. This is part of a pattern of the US fueling Turkish aggression which ends up helping Russia and Iran, whether it is the US looking the other way during the recent war on Armenia, or as Turkey sent Syrians to Libya.  
Meanwhile, across the border from Syria, Baghdad has also brokered a deal with the Kurdish region to deal with Sinjar, a deal that is supposed to also remove PKK-linked groups and Shi’ite militias. Turkey has been bombing Sinjar and threatened to invade this area of Iraq also, cutting off the US role in Syria from friends in Iraq.
The Kurdistan Regional Government also has tensions with Turkey and the PKK. It operates from mountains near Qandil, and the Turkish border and Turkey has launched operations and occupies areas of northern Iraq, claiming it is fighting the PKK.
Recent tensions led to allegations the PKK attacked Kurdistan region Peshmerga. The US consulate in Erbil condemned the “terrorist PKK” for the attack. This leaves some concerned that fighting could erupt between the PKK and KRG. Paired with new threats of a Turkish invasion or lack of clarity in Trump’s policies in eastern Syria, and US troops moving to the KRG from other parts of Iraq due to Iranian threats, the whole situation is combustible.  
That means that Jeffrey’s apparent departure comes as the Trump administration weighs winding down Syria policy again. It has said it is protecting oil facilities. However the real role of the US is in areas dominated by Syrian Sunni Arab tribes near the Euphrates.
Iran and other elements linked to the Syrian regime have been assassinating locals recently. Meanwhile, Russia and Damascus and Turkey are stirring up tensions.
Pro-Turkish extremists were influenced by ani-French coverage in mid-October to attack a church in Tabqa recently. The Comissioner of the US Council for International Religious Freedom, Nadine Maenza, recently visited eastern Syria and expressed concern about threats to Christians and to religious freedom.
She tweeted that “there are so many reasons the international community should be speaking up about the horrible atrocities happening against religious minorities in the areas that Turkey is occupying in Syria.”
Jeffrey’s departure is only a symbol and tip of the iceberg of the larger problem that exists between northern Iraq and eastern Syria and Turkey. Ankara wants more invasions.
Russia, Iran and Turkey want the US to leave. The SDF has created stability but it’s unclear if US-backed talks between Kurdish groups can reconcile them. Discussions about Sinjar and tensions between the KRG and PKK as well as Iran’s threats all seek to destabilize the region as the Trump administration may be handing over power to a new administration.
With CENTCOM playing a key role in Iraq and Syria, and the State Department generally working at cross purposes to the US successful military role, there is lack of clarity on US policy dealing with Iran, Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Enemies of the US will seek to exploit that. In some cases, US officials even seemed to work with or empower enemies to destabilize the area, fighting against other US policymakers in the process.