We’re Still In the Fight, Trump’s Syria Envoy Tells Congress

James Jeffrey special representative for Syria Engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat Islamic State testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on assessing the impact of Turkey's offensive in northeast Syria.

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James Jeffrey special representative for Syria Engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat Islamic State testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on assessing the impact of Turkey's offensive in northeast Syria.

Amb. Jim Jeffrey denied the U.S. withdrawal has ceded influence to Russia, and declined to reveal his personal opinion of it.

President Trump’s top envoy for Syria on Tuesday defended the administration’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops there, frustrating Senate lawmakers by rejecting claims that Washington had cleared the way for Turkey’s advance and insisting that the United States still maintains influence in the multilayered conflict.

Amb. Jim Jeffrey told disbelieving members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “we’re still there” fighting ISIS — even as U.S. troops have pulled out amid a hail of rotten fruit and rocks pelted by the Syrian Kurds they left behind to face the Turkish assault that began last week.

He denied that the United States has ceded leadership in northeastern Syria to Russia and Iran, which have sought influence in the Syrian civil war by backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and now stand to gain in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

“We certainly haven’t handed it off to these guys,” Jeffrey told committee members. “The U.S. Air Force is very much there right now and that’s something the Department of Defense and State Department is looking at.”

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“We’re reviewing how we are going to continue to maintain a relationship with the [Syrian Democratic Forces], maintain the fight against ISIS along the Euphrates, and how we’re going to contribute in some way to the stability of that region that’s just been torn asunder by the Turks going in, with the tools available to us,” he said later. “We haven’t completed that review yet, but it’s ongoing.”

Even as Jeffrey sat before the committee, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an agreement that underscored the degree to which Russia has supplanted the United States as a key power broker in northeastern Syria. Where U.S. and Turkish troops had just recently begun joint patrols to deter Syrian Kurdish attacks near Turkey’s border, now Turks would patrol with Russian forces.  

Turkey’s deal with Russia builds upon a separate agreement struck between the United States and Turkey last week, which forced the withdrawal of America’s Kurdish allies from a 20-mile buffer zone along the Syria-Turkey border in exchange for a pause in Turkish operations. (A senior administration official told Defense One over the weekend that Turkey had violated the ceasefire “since its inception.” The SDF’s top commander told multiple Western media outlets this weekend that Turkey continued to shell his forces and blocked them from withdrawing as agreed.) 

That provisional ceasefire expired on Tuesday afternoon. After six hours of negotiations in Sochi, Russia, Putin and Erdogan announced a deal with Assad’s forces to “remove” the remaining Syrian Kurdish fighters and equipment of the YPG — one element of the U.S.-backed SDF — within the buffer zone and establish joint Russian-Turkish patrols at noon on Wednesday. 

The deal offers Erdogan what he has long sought in northeastern Syria: to clear the area of all Kurdish fighters, which he considers terrorists, and a space to resettle Syrian refugees that have created political problems for the Turkish president at home. 

Jeffrey told lawmakers that the deal was “full of holes.” 

“All I know is, it will stop the Turks from moving forward,” he said. “Whether the Russians will ever live up to their commitment, which is very vague, to enable… methods to get the [Kurdish] YPG out of their areas, I don’t know.” 

Although they stopped short of criticizing Trump by name over the withdrawal decision, several GOP members on the committee expressed deep-seated skepticism at Jeffrey’s assurances that the United States continues to wield influence in Syria. Washington, they argued, has broken its word to the Syrian Kurds, who did the bulk of the fighting alongside American troops to defeat ISIS in Syria. 

“You’ve expressed a level of hope that some of this is still salvageable, and I’m puzzled by that,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said. “The Turks are pushing down into Syria with the goal of driving the Kurds out [and] they have now cut a deal with the Russians who have basically said we’re going to help you push the Kurds out.”

“And you say we’re going to continue to cooperate with the Kurdish SDF forces — how? Where are we plugging in on this? And with who?” he continued. 

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., known for his opposition to U.S. military interventions abroad, said “the Russians are becoming players” and suggested that their involvement at the same time that the United States is stepping away from the country could improve the chances of peace in the region. 

Jeffrey argued that the U.S.-engineered withdrawal of Kurdish forces from the strip of territory invaded by the Turks — and the provisional ceasefire deal that coincided with Turkey’s advance — showed continuing U.S. influence in the region. Vice President Mike Pence and Jeffrey said they had received written assurances from the SDF that that withdrawal was completed on Tuesday, although questions lingered through the weekend over the exact borders of the zone in question. Jeffrey acknowledged that the United States and Turkey did not set firm borders in their deal struck last week. “We basically used wherever Turkish troops were, that’s where the safe zone existed,” he said. 

Trump has been under fierce fire even from close allies on Capitol Hill who blame him for the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria. In a phone call with Erdogan on Oct. 6, Trump responded to the Turkish president’s threat of an imminent attack by saying that he would clear a small contingent U.S. soldiers from a previously negotiated, much narrower border zone — giving Turkey a de facto “green light” to attack the United States’ Kurdish allies, critics say.

Those U.S. troops, whose job was to participate in joint patrols with Turkey, were seen as a deterrent against Turkish invasion — not because they would have exchanged fire with Turkey but because Turkey would not want to risk confronting  NATO-allied American service members in the course of their assault.

Within three days of the phone call with Trump, Erdogan had launched the first airstrikes. Days later, Trump announced a full withdrawal of the remaining 1,000 troops from Syria, leaving behind the Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters who for four years have been battling ISIS with U.S. direction, and fending off Assad’s forces.

Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to attack the U.S.-allied SDF, which was built in part using fighters from the militia arm of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that the State Department and Ankara consider to be terrorists. But he had never followed through on those threats until Oct. 9, when Turkish forces began launching air and artillery strikes into northeastern Syria. 

Jeffrey confirmed that he was not consulted before Trump made the unexpected announcement in tweet two weeks ago that he was ordering U.S. troops to pull out of northeast Syria and make way for Turkey. He said he was “furious” at Turkey for walking away from talks designed to assuage Ankara’s security concerns. But the lifelong diplomat would not reveal to Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., whether he agreed with the president’s decision. 

“I carry out the instructions of the president,” Jeffrey said. “I agree that presidents have to make that decision, not people in the bureaucracy such as me.” 

And he argued that U.S. troops in the narrow border zone between the two countries were not a deterrent to a Turkish invasion because nobody had given them a mission to fight Turkey if they crossed into Syria. “They have never been given that order over two administrations,” he said. 

“I do not think [the initial withdrawal] contributed to this very tragic decision by the Turkish government,” he said. 

But asked by Committee chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, if the Turkish invasion was inevitable — as some allies of the administration have claimed, pointing to Erdogan’s longstanding threats — Jeffrey demurred. 

It was a very real possibility, Mr. Chairman,” he said. “It was not inevitable.”

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