James Jeffrey says he has played “shell games” to hide true numbers of American troops in northern Syria, misleading President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, has made a startling revelation, stating that he kept Trump in the dark about the actual size of US troops in northern Syria, where Washington backs the YPG, Syrian arm of the PKK terror organisation. 

“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey said in an interview published yesterday. The controversial statement came at a time when he is currently preparing to leave the Trump administration.  

The US presence in northern Syria has helped the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU, consolidate its presence in the region. The PKK has led to tens of thousands of deaths during its decades-long terror campaign against the Turkish state. Ankara has constantly demanded from Washington to stop its support to the YPG/PKK, which has threatened Turkey’s both national and border security. 

Under Turkish pressure, Trump last year announced US troop withdrawal from northern Syria. He faced immense criticism from American establishment figures like Republican Senator Lindsay Graham and former Pentagon chief James Mattis, who had several policy differences with the president and eventually quit from the top post on the heels of Trump’s decision to withdraw.

The US media, most of which has long been at loggerheads with Trump, also heavily criticised his decision to pull out. 

As a result, Trump backtracked from his position and instead called to minimise US military presence in northern Syria. 

From Jeffrey's candid assertion that he willingly misled Trump on the size of US troops present in the region, it's clear the American military footprint there has not diminished, despite President Trump repeatedly calling for the total withdrawal only last year. 

“What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal,” Jeffrey said. 

In 2019, Trump said that the US would leave two hundred troops behind, an announcement that came following a crucial phone call with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has consistently stated that if Washington does not clear the PKK presence in northern Syria, Ankara will do it by itself. 

A US military commander (2nd R) walks with YPG militants at the group's headquarters that were hit by Turkish air strikes in Mount Karachok, near Malikiya, in northern Syria on April 25, 2017.
A US military commander (2nd R) walks with YPG militants at the group's headquarters that were hit by Turkish air strikes in Mount Karachok, near Malikiya, in northern Syria on April 25, 2017. (Rodi Said / TRTWorld)

Mixed messages

During the same interview, Jeffrey indicated that the real number of US troops was “a lot more than” 200 troops as Trump declared at the time of the so-called withdrawal. 

Constantly varying declarations on different numbers of US troops, ranging from an initial 2500 to 400, and the most latest, 200, have already suggested that something is going on in Washington over its Syria policy. 

While Trump has appeared to be deceived by his top officials like Jeffrey on the pullout, Turkey has had no illusion about it, constantly urging Washington to fulfill its own words.  

In the end, Erdogan fulfilled his own threat last year. Turkish troops entered northern Syria and beat back YPG terrorists, sweeping them from a swathe of border territories. US troops have also left those areas where they were guarding the YPG, as the Turkish army swiftly took control of some parts of northern Syria. 

Much of the Turkish establishment is increasingly sceptical about US intentions and has been frustrated by Washington’s mixed messages to Turkey. The disagreements between Trump and the US establishment over Syria add to Ankara's Washington resentment.

“The US will never leave northern Syria,” Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of the Turkish national intelligence agency (MIT), repeatedly told TRT World in previous interviews.  

“The US acts in accordance with its imperialist aims (in Syria and Iraq). The US debate on the modality of the withdrawal does not change the essential character of its imperialist aims (in the Middle East),” said Ones in a 2019 interview. 

He described US support for the YPG as “a strategic reinforcement” for Washington's “long-term designs” concerning a Kurdish-dominated autonomous region, which will likely be a mirror image of the Kurdish autonomous region it carved out in northern Iraq in the 1990s, soon after the first Gulf War. 

Analysis that is more than a year old put together by Ones stands vindicated in light of Jeffrey's confirmation that the US never really withdrew from the region.

“When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated Daesh, [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,” said Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Turkey. 

While it’s not clear what those five arguments are, it’s much more probable that at least one is about bolstering the YPG presence, the group behind the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) founded and funded by the US, in northern Syria. 

Jeffrey also reportedly advises President-elect Joe Biden, who defends a strong US presence in northern Syria, signalling that Washington's political line will not change under the Democratic leadership much. 

Jeffrey was one of the signatories of the “Never Trump” letter, which declared the President a danger to the US. Despite having served under Trump, he is still not repentant about having signed the letter in 2016. 

“I know what I did in 2016, I do not disagree with that,” he said.  

Source: TRT World