Retiring Syria envoy says he hid US troop numbers from Trump

Retiring Syria envoy says he hid US troop numbers from Trump
Soon-to-be former Syria envoy for the US, James Jeffrey has admitted that he and his team routinely misled Donald Trump about the number of US troops in Syria.
3 min read
13 November, 2020
James Jeffrey [Getty]
James Jeffrey, who oversaw the Trump administration's policies on Syria and the Islamic State and has announced his intention to retire, has revealed that his team misled the US president on the number of troops in Syria.

Jeffrey, who was the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the International Military Intervention against ISIS, will be replaced by his deputy, Joel Rayburn, and top counterterrorism official Nathan Sales.

"We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there [Syria]," the departing diplomat told Defense One in an interview.

The actual number in northeast Syria is "a lot more" than the 200 troops Trump decided would remain in 2019. Some officials put the actual number at 900.

He went on to say that Trump's decision to withdraw troops from the conflict-ridden country was "the most controversial thing in my 50 years in government". 

Jeffrey revealed that despite Trump's repeated announcements to withdraw troops from Syria, he kept a small team there each time – on Jeffrey’s recommendation.

"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."

Jeffrey insists Trump's Middle East policies are "quite popular among all our allies in the region".

Trump, he added, has sought "to build up our alliance system and basically stop nagging at them, show that Washington has their back including their domestic situations — they can do pretty much what they want, but they're going to have to step up and do things".

'No change' in Syria policy

Last week Jeffrey said there will be "no change" to the American troop presence in Syria following President-elect Joe Biden's election victory.

The US will not diverge on its position in Syria even under the Biden presidency, including present sanctions and relations with Iranian presence in the war-torn country, Jeffrey told Syria Direct.

Experts have speculated that if Trump were to win a second term he would pull out more troops from Syrian territory, as he did most recently in October of 2019.

Jeffrey's take also contradicts the stance of the Biden campaign, which has heavily criticised the president for his "dangerous" foreign policy. Supporters for the Democrat argued he would be inclined to increase American boots on the ground.

Jeffrey, who held the highest rank in the foreign service, also stressed that the US position will remain solving the conflict in Syria by way of the UN Security Council Resolution, which he said is "absolutely necessary", according to Syria Direct.

He also seemed confident that Turkish presence in the region would not shift either: "We have seen no sign of a Turkish preparation for a military movement, nor have we seen any actions or provocations or alleged provocations by the Syrian Democratic Forces that would justify any Turkish reaction."

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