A US Ambassador Ends His Service on the Front Lines in Syria
Reflections on U.S. foreign policy in a wartorn state.
When I concluded my service as U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain in 2017, I had a number of possibilities in mind for the next assignment. None of them included service as America's senior diplomat in northeastern Syria.
I had nearly 30 years in the Foreign Service, most of them logged in “high-threat posts” in the Middle East, such as Baghdad, Tripoli, and Gaza City. (They hadn’t been kidding about the “threat” aspect. Early in my career, unknown assailants had tried to kill me, attacking the little convoy of armored jeeps escorting me into Gaza City and killing three of the American security personnel assigned to protect me.) Service in Bahrain as ambassador was easier – and safer.
I worked hard to strengthen our relations with Bahrain, getting to know the King, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, and his American-educated, reformist-minded son, Crown Prince Salman, along with other royals and senior officials. The bilateral relationship had gone through a rough patch in the years before I arrived in early 2015, as Arab Spring unrest had swept through Bahrain as it did through much of the Arab world. Largely non-violent protests occasionally — and unpredictably — degenerated into violent resistance, bringing the more predictable government repression. Throughout, the U.S. government made uncomfortable and often unsuccessful efforts to protect longstanding bilateral relationships while also voicing support for non-violent demonstrators, as a way to encourage modest political reforms that would enhance overall stability. It was yet another murder of a beautiful foreign policy theory by a gang of brutal facts.
While the slow, painful demise of that theory had soured our relations with Bahrain, I focused on rebuilding confidence, pressing them in a productive way on human rights, and strengthening the commercial relationship. It was a fascinating three-year assignment that allowed me to represent the U.S. government in all manner of events and ceremonies. I welcomed several thousand guests to our Fourth of July celebration (held in March to avoid the brutal 120-degree heat (and hundred percent humidity) of mid-summer Manama. I delivered the commencement address to graduating seniors at the American School in Bahrain and met with senior Bahraini officials and decision-makers on billion-dollar construction projects to sing the praises of American technology and push for a level playing field that would give U.S. companies a fighting chance to compete.
Wrapping up that service, I had a number of onward assignment scenarios in mind. None of them remotely involved going to an austere, dangerous location where I would be embedded with U.S. Special Forces troops, hundreds of miles from the nearest U.S. embassy, consulate or even remote listening post. And yet that is what I ended up doing, serving in northeastern Syria as the senior, and often the only, U.S. diplomat on the ground.
In early 2018, I lugged a big title – Deputy Special Envoy for the Global Coalition Against ISIS – onto a C-130 for that first night flight into Syria. It landed in pitch dark, with U.S. pilots using night-vision goggles to touch down on the isolated dirt strip 30 miles from Kobane. The plane was only on the ground long enough to drop me and a few other forlorn souls off, along with a several pallets of supplies. Two U.S. special forces soldiers picked me up in a scuffed Toyota Land Cruiser and dropped me off 40 miles away, at a hulking, abandoned cement factory that we, with our Kurdish local partners, had converted into a makeshift military base. The “mayor,” a U.S. sergeant major charged with all logistics and housing at this ramshackle post in rural Syria, greeted me sleepily around 3 a.m., provided me a WiFi password, showed me to my small trailer and the separately located showers and toilets, and went back to bed.
For the next two and half years of my life, I spent my days (and some nights) traveling throughout northeast Syria, mostly in an armored jeep protected by Special Forces soldiers and Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, or sometimes on Blackhawk helicopters that would swoop into Raqqa or the outskirts of Deir a-Zour in a gale-force blast of dust, noise, and rotor blades that summoned up equal parts of adrenaline, earache, and a primal, if unrequited urge to salute. I would visit with local officials in the recently stood up civil councils and security forces of Raqqa, Manbij, Tel Abyad, and other towns and villages to hear their concerns; reassure them regarding U.S. support and intention to stay the course; and offer assistance in the desperately needed effort to restore essential services: running water, electricity, and refurbishing of damaged schools and hospitals, as well as the agricultural infrastructure of water pumps (all along the Euphrates River), irrigation canals and grain silos that together formed the engine of the economy in northeastern Syria. After eight years of war in Syria, several years of ISIS depredations, and a series of difficult U.S-SDF military offensives to gouge out the death-wish remnants of ISIS, many of these cities and towns were heavily damaged. The city of Raqqa, liberated in late 2017, looked more like World War II-era Dresden. Entire blocks were leveled, while other large swaths of the city were gashed with heavily damaged structures and piles of rubble.
I worked closely with a small, scrappy team of Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development personnel who were helping these communities recover. A limited contingent of aid workers in the U.S. military, described as civil affairs teams, did similar work. It was difficult. The needs were overwhelming and U.S. funding for this assistance was limited. In mid-2018, all the funding was cut off, as former President Trump insisted that our European and Gulf Arab allies should assume this responsibility. They eventually took on this funding for a period, but the limits and disruptions to our assistance and eventual flagging of effort by allies prevented the effort to rebuild in northeast Syria from ever gaining real altitude. This was also dangerous work; underground elements of ISIS tried to target us. In the winter of 2019 an ISIS suicide bomber killed several members of a U.S. civil affairs team and severely injured a number of others when these personnel entered a restaurant in the city of Manbij.
In Deir a-Zour province further to the east, I met regularly with Arab tribal leaders to hear their complaints, which were usually focused on the Kurdish-dominated security forces and local-government officials that the tribal sheikhs viewed as interfering, bossy outsiders. I assured the tribal leaders I would pass along their complaints about corruption and undisciplined counter-terrorism raids causing civilian casualties (while gently reminding them that some in their tribal ranks had previously been affiliated with ISIS). I urged them to stick with us and the SDF as we continued the fight against the lethal remnants of ISIS. On one such visit, I managed – over a steaming lunch of lamb and rice, served on huge platters as we sat on the floor – to keep these recalcitrant leaders on our side. Soon-to-emerge local press accounts and even a grainy YouTube detailed the “visiting American ambassador William Rupac” being showered with gifts of a tribal sword and ceremonial Bedouin robe, tentative indicators that at least for the time being, American diplomacy “on the ground” had prevailed.
I represented the United States at the liberation ceremony that SDF commander General Mazloum Abdi organized in the Deir a-Zour outback in March 2019. The SDF, with the help of our Special Forces on the ground (bolstered by anti-ISIS Coalition combat aircraft and U.S armed drones) had finally cornered and overwhelmed the last organized remnants of ISIS in northeastern Syria, at the nearby battlefield of Baghouz. After weeks of holding out, with little to eat and dwindling ammunition, some ten thousand ISIS fighters surrendered, accompanied by tens of thousands of their family members. With flags flying and a local band struggling through the Star-Spangled Banner, I delivered remarks thanking the SDF for their sacrifices (tens of thousands of dead and wounded) and the global Coalition for its support. After having labored as a diplomat behind the scenes for more than a year, I suddenly found myself answering questions posed by reporters from the BBC, Fox News, NBC; even Vice News thrust a microphone in my face.
I tried to remember those heady days six months later, when the Turkish military and the bloodthirsty Islamist jihadi forces it supported invaded northeastern Syria, in October 2019, attacking Kurdish forces we had partnered with against ISIS. Turkey viewed these forces, mistakenly in our view, as members of the PKK, a terrorist organization Turkish security forces had long fought in Turkey. Our arguments to Turkish officials – that the SDF, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces, or YPG, out of which it developed, were not part of the PKK and had never attacked Turkey – fell on deaf ears, as did our protests to senior Turkish officials that Turkish military action in northeastern Syria would undermine our fight there against ISIS. I found myself the lone U.S. diplomat on the ground as the fighting raged, trying to explain to the SDF our refusal to get involved. I spoke directly to the SDF commander General Mazloum, a frequent interlocutor of mine over the past months when things had been going well against ISIS. Now, he was livid; I tried to reassure him as best I could, even as Turkey’s powerful military and proxies used armed drones and other airpower to maul his undermanned forces, armed only with light weapons they could use to fight ISIS. Some 200,000 people, mostly Kurds, were displaced and forced out of the area (joining the ranks of several million Syrians displaced by the ongoing civil war inside Syria, and a similar number forced out as refugees). The U.S. was in a complete bind, torn between a longstanding NATO ally and an invaluable local partner that had fought with conspicuous heroism in the fight against ISIS. Many blamed former President Trump, in the run-up to the Turkish attack, for not heeding the subtleties of our predicament and, if, press accounts of the details are to be credited, carelessly signaling to Turkish President Erdogan in a now-famous telephone conversation that the United States wanted out of northeastern Syria and the fight against the remnants of ISIS there, and would not object to Turkish military action.
In the toughest meeting of my diplomatic career, a few days later, General Mazloum berated me and accused the United States of having betrayed the forces that had fought with it against ISIS, opening the way to the slaughter of his people. Eventually, with some artful if desperate U.S. diplomacy at senior levels, reinforced by my stinging diplomatic message from the field, which ended up in the front pages of the New York Times, we were able to negotiate a cease-fire and even – with reported interventions by Sen. Lindsey Graham with President Trump – to salvage much of our military presence in northeastern Syria and our relationship with the SDF and General Mazloum. On the ground, as the fighting raged near our base in advance of this cease-fire, our small group had to be evacuated in extremis at night by helicopter, as the cement factory compound I had lived on for the previous year and a half began to burn to the ground.
I eventually wrapped up my service in Syria and shortly afterwards retired from the U.S. Department of State. If being U.S. ambassador in Bahrain represented the culmination of my diplomatic career, my service in Syria helped me revisit all of the building blocks that had helped shape that career. I came away with a deep respect for the might, discipline, and sense of mission of the U.S. military and especially for the Special Operations Forces with whom I and other American diplomats worked so closely. I developed an appreciation for the persuasive and reassuring power of a U.S. diplomatic presence on the ground in these higher threat areas, willing to listen and able to report accurately, while conveying U.S. government concerns. I grew to understand that our example, our statements, our assistance, our system of democratic governance, even with all its defects, and, yes, our sheathed military might, created a reservoir of goodwill, respect, caution, and sometimes fear, into which activist U.S. diplomacy had space to work.
I also came away, after decades as a U.S. diplomat, with the realization that foreign policy often gets formulated in less-than-optimal conditions, where our leverage is severely constrained while our policy ambitions become and remain grandiose. Only periodic tough-minded policy reassessments and occasional, difficult course corrections can prevent policy makers from redoubling their efforts even as objectives show themselves to be unattainable and humanitarian conditions on the ground become increasingly desperate. And finally, I understood that sometimes a diplomat has no talking points worth uttering or policy worth articulating to allies who have been in the trenches with us. At lower levels and in less fraught circumstances, a good diplomat must learn as part of his apprenticeship to work some magic with his or her professionalism, willingness to listen and empathize, a little improvisation, and confidence in the might, prestige and values that the U.S. brings to the foreign policy table. I have often thought of it as pocket-lint diplomacy: the effort to mediate, persuade, cajole, assist, and reassure as if one’s diplomatic pockets were full of expected solutions and commitments, in the full realization one’s pockets, except for the lint, were empty. They weren’t always empty, of course; we more often than not came to the table armed with all that was needed to create the necessary alliances, secure the local partners, persuade the reluctant rivals to accept U.S. mediation, and so forth. But the effective diplomat prepared himself for the bad day when he found himself out in the field and feeling only the lint rub between his fingers.
The Biden administration is reportedly in the throes of a policy review on Syria; no Special Envoy for Syria has been appointed, unlike for Iran and Yemen. The new team will need to assess carefully the objectives of the Syria policy it inherited from the two previous administrations (defeating ISIS; getting a political solution for Syria; stopping the use of chemical weapons; getting Iranian forces out of Syria; and addressing the humanitarian suffering) and the limited leverage we have to achieve them (a small U.S. military presence, helping the SDF control the northeast; layers of economic sanctions; and our diplomacy at the U.N. and with key stakeholders). There are no ideal or easy options. Syrians are divided over the proper course, with many tired of the war and anxious to get on with their lives, while others insist there can be no stability as long as President Bashar al-Assad holds power. Intervening forces – whether allies, local partners, rivals, or foes – have staked out interests that in best cases sometimes overlap with ours, but more often seek different, and in many cases, opposing objectives. Although it has come out on top militarily, the Assad regime is weakened, drenched in blood and toxic with the commission of appalling war crimes, while the Islamist forces opposing Assad on the ground are tainted with terrorist ranks in the mix, even if not present among all forces, and unable to convince anyone they offer a credible alternative. No policy direction we settle on will allow us to neatly balance our interests and our values in a realistic, achievable way.
To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, it will take “a mind of winter” to assess our options in Syria and fashion a policy that is true to our interests and values, our leverage, and to the bleak, often conflicting, realities on the ground. In the meantime, the most desperate stakeholders, the people of Syria, remain in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe: a country destroyed, an economy in shambles, and a generation of students lost, heightening the stakes for those who would seek to resolve this conflict.
William Roebuck is Executive VP of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is a retired Foreign Service Officer who served as U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain and most recently, as Deputy Special Envoy for the Global Coalition Against ISIS.
NEXT STORY: Here’s How Russia and China Are Helping the U.S.