How the Iran Hawks Botched Trump’s Syria Withdrawal
Beginning with special representative James Jeffrey, U.S. officials consistently misread the threat from Turkey.
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On April 3, 2018, Brett McGurk, then-special presidential envoy for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, told an audience in Washington that the United States planned to stay in Syria for the foreseeable future. “We are in Syria to fight ISIS,” McGurk said during an event at the United States Institute for Peace, “and our mission isn’t over.”
But as McGurk was speaking, his boss was striking a very different note the same day at a White House press conference. “I want to get out [of Syria]. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation,” President Donald Trump said.
The stunning split screen is one that many insiders point to as emblematic of the jumbled, often downright incoherent nature of the United States’ Syria policy. But it also reflects the failure of senior U.S. officials to take Trump at his word, as they actively sought to stay in Syria as a buffer against the Islamic State and Iranian influence—with disastrous consequences for the Syrian Kurds.
In conversations with more than a dozen former and current U.S. and Kurdish officials as well as experts, insiders described how a group of Iran hawks in the upper echelon of the administration—including then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and James Jeffrey, the special representative for Syria engagement—repeatedly sought to reverse Trump’s Syria withdrawal over nearly two years, culminating in a disastrous Turkish invasion that has destabilized the region. In doing so, they signaled to the Kurds that the United States would protect them against the possibility of a Turkish attack—something it turned out they had little power to prevent.
Many of these sources requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
Efforts to slow down the Syria withdrawal culminated in a worst-case scenario. On Oct. 6, Trump withdrew U.S. troops from the Turkey-Syria border after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled his intent to launch a cross-border invasion. Erdogan soon rolled into northeastern Syria in an ongoing operation that Kurdish leaders have dubbed a “genocide,” killing hundreds of fighters and civilians, displacing 300,000 residents, and opening the door to a resurgence of the Islamic State.
Now, the Syrian Kurds are facing an existential threat to their people and the destruction of the fragile autonomy they have built in the northeastern part of the country. Following the invasion, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin carved up the region in a pact that effectively cedes a chunk of formerly Kurdish-held territory, 75 miles wide and 20 miles deep, to Ankara and puts Russian and Turkish troops on the Kurds’ borders. The Kurds have been forced to cut a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers to protect them from the Turkish attack. Their political and territorial losses put them in a drastically weaker position to negotiate any sort of autonomy in a future Syrian state.
“We were promised a lot from many U.S. officials, not just Trump,” Ilham Ahmed, the president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), told Foreign Policy in an interview last week. “That they were going to stay until they reached a political agreement, until they made sure that the Islamic State was totally defeated, and to enable stability and security in northeastern Syria. None of those were achieved before they withdrew.”
At the same time, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have cemented control over much of Syria—a scenario U.S. officials fear will set the stage for an Iranian land bridge that stretches across Iraq and Syria to Israel’s border. To safeguard against that outcome, U.S. officials are once again desperately trying to convince Trump to retain a residual force in northeastern Syria near the rich oil fields in Deir Ezzor province. The president had agreed to temporarily reposition a few hundred U.S. troops in the region, but it’s far from clear how long they will stay as a myriad of local players jockey for influence, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Assad, the Kurds, and the Syrian opposition.
Some experts argue that this scenario was inevitable. Since his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump has made very clear his goal to bring U.S. troops home from “endless wars” in the Middle East. And in parallel, Erdogan has made equally clear his opposition to U.S. support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the SDC’s military arm, which Ankara views as a terrorist threat.
Diplomats and defense officials working on Syria were put in an impossible position, crafting policy around Trump’s incoherent Twitter feed and Turkey’s very real threats to the SDF, said Dana Stroul, a former U.S. Defense Department official who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Stroul pushed back on allegations that Jeffrey and his team deliberately mislead the SDF or undercut the president.
“[Jeffrey] was clear publicly—and one assumes privately—that the U.S. relationship with the SDF was ‘temporary, tactical, and transactional,’” Stroul said. “The rug was pulled out from under the U.S. diplomatic and military team, who were left holding the bag when Trump made his unplanned and unnecessary decision.”
Jeffrey defended himself in an Oct. 22 hearing, saying that he had always been clear with the Kurds that the U.S. troop presence in northeastern Syria did not mean the United States would protect them against a Turkish military operation.
But others lay the blame squarely at the feet of Bolton, Jeffrey, and other senior State and Defense Department officials who repeatedly ignored the president’s wishes as part of a misguided effort to deprive the Islamic State and Iran of vital territorial gains.
“The worst part of this collective, predictable, and predicted failure is that … Washington never seriously grappled with how to leave Syria in a way that satisfied Trump and maximized U.S. interests,” Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, wrote in War on the Rocks.
A problematic partnership
The U.S. military’s partnership with the Syrian Kurds began in the fall of 2014, three years into Syria’s civil war. By that point, the Islamic State had seized territory in Iraq and Syria the size of Great Britain and set its sights on the Kurdish border town of Kobani. U.S. special operations forces partnered with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in a bloody battle to take back the city that marked the Islamic State’s first major defeat in Syria.
After years of unsuccessfully backing Syrian Arab rebels to topple Assad’s government and later to fight the Islamic State, the United States was impressed with the Kurdish militia. The earlier partnerships—with the very rebels who in the last month have stormed into northeastern Syria with a new backer, Turkey—failed because of corruption and disorganization, as well as defections to extremist groups like the Nusra Front.
But partnering with the Kurds, a long-marginalized ethnic minority concentrated in northeastern Syria, had its own drawbacks. The YPG’s roots are in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long uprising in Turkey, and many of the YPG’s commanders have strong links to the Turkish insurgents. From the beginning, Ankara objected loudly to the United States’ partnership with the YPG, particularly the relationship with Syrian commander Gen. Mazloum Abdi, who Turkish officials say worked for the PKK for decades and killed many Turkish soldiers.
Despite Ankara’s protestations, the United States expanded its partnership with the YPG, providing light arms and training the group in military tactics. Allied with Christian, Arab, and other militias, the YPG rebranded itself in 2015 as the SDF. Meanwhile, the SDC began to build a de facto autonomous administration in northeastern Syria, called Rojava, comprising self-governing subregions including Afrin, Manbij, and Deir Ezzor.
This was a massive problem for Turkey—one that Jeffrey and his team still do not fully understand, critics say. The United States’ partnership with the YPG was not just an annoyance for Ankara; it was “a nuclear bomb waiting to go off,” one State Department official said. It portended the legitimization of a potential political relationship between Washington and the PKK—something it turned out Turkey was willing to pay a high price to prevent.
When Trump took office in 2017, State Department officials began making preparations to disengage from Syria in accordance with the president’s campaign promises. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, McGurk, and Michael Ratney, then-special envoy for Syria, understood that America’s interest in the Syrian civil war was limited to defeating the Islamic State and that Trump was set on leaving Syria despite Assad’s inevitable return to power.
As peace talks to end the civil war began in early 2017 in Astana (now Nur-Sultan), Kazakhstan, U.S. officials began quietly signaling to the SDF that it should keep its channels open with the Assad regime to pave the way for negotiations on an eventual political settlement, as the United States’ withdrawal was inevitable. Everything seemed to be going according to plan—a cease-fire brokered in late 2016 between the Russian-backed regime and the Turkish-backed opposition held, and a series of Astana talks led to the establishment of four “de-escalation zones” across the country.
But then Assad conducted a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province in April 2017. Horrified by the attack, Trump retaliated with a missile strike on the regime. At this point, senior officials began to shift policy back toward an anti-regime stance, eventually embodied in Tillerson’s Stanford speech in early 2018. U.S. efforts to disengage from the conflict, and ceasefire in southern Syria between Russia, Jordan, and the United states froze. Clashes resumed in southern Syria. In northeastern Syria, the United States’ partnership with the SDF against the Islamic State continued unabated.
The Iran hawks
Over the next year, as Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster fell out of favor with Trump, U.S. Syria policy dissolved into chaos, with little discernible guidance coming from the top. Trump abruptly fired Tillerson in March 2018 and began staffing the administration with longtime Iran hawks, appointing Bolton as McMaster’s replacement and CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, who brought in Jeffrey and his deputy, Joel Rayburn.
“Because of the chaos in the administration, policy guidance got quite muddled during this period,” the State Department official said. “It was a little bit of a free-for-all.”
With the arrival of the Iran hawks, amid significant gains in the battle against the Islamic State, the administration’s Syria policy shifted. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran became the new focus, as the campaign to defeat the militants was largely seen as on track. Jeffrey began making plans to stay in northeastern Syria indefinitely as an obstacle to Assad’s attempts to consolidate power. In particular, Jeffrey’s team aimed to deny the Syrian president and his Iranian backers access to the coveted oil fields in Deir Ezzor province, which are mostly under SDF control.
As part of the maximum pressure campaign, the United States began signaling to the Kurds that they should cease negotiations with the regime. According to Ahmed, U.S. officials threatened to withdraw all support if the Kurds reached out to Assad.
The problem was that the strategy the Iran hawks were implementing was fundamentally at odds with the president’s publicly stated desire to withdraw from Syria, whether by design or due to muddled guidance from the White House. Many insiders saw a cataclysmic clash coming: The United States could not remain in Syria indefinitely without the help of the SDF, but Turkey would not abide that relationship following the defeat of the Islamic State. At this point, insiders say Jeffrey made a fundamental miscalculation—that the Turks would rather see the United States and the YPG at the border indefinitely than Russia, Assad, and Iran.
“Jeffrey completely misunderstood and misjudged Turkey every step of the way,” the State Department official said. “It was a totally fundamental misunderstanding of how Turkey prioritized its interests and how it prioritized acceptable outcomes in Syria.”
Another State Department official pushed back on this characterization, noting that Turkey’s political landscape had changed dramatically over the last few years, particularly with the defeat of Erdogan’s candidate for Istanbul mayor in this year’s elections. As U.S. officials tried to negotiate a solution in Syria, Erdogan was under “tremendous political pressure,” particularly to address the presence of millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Still, officials believed that Turkey would not risk a military intervention.
The hawks saw securing Turkey’s cooperation as central to the anti-Iran campaign. As a way to ease tensions between Washington and Ankara, in November 2018 Turkish and U.S. troops began conducting joint patrols on the outskirts of Manbij, a town near the border with Turkey that the United States and the SDF recaptured from the Islamic State in 2016. The YPG’s presence in Manbij has long been a point of contention with the Turks, as it violated a long-standing Turkish red line against any Kurdish presence west of the Euphrates River.
“We were told that the Manbij road map was a way to stop Erdogan from demanding more. It was our way of stalling Turkey so the regime and the SDF could reach a political settlement,” said one U.S. Army officer who fought in Syria. “Looking back now, it seems like it was a way to get the SDF to focus on the ISIS fight and not worry about Turkey.”
The first reversal
The efforts made by U.S. officials to appease Ankara never satisfied Erdogan. In early December 2018, Jeffrey inadvertently gave the Turkish leader the blueprint for the invasion he would conduct 10 months later.
During a trip to Turkey in December 2018, Jeffrey urged Turkish officials not to launch a cross-border operation, warning that if Ankara attacked the YPG in northeastern Syria the United States would withdraw all its forces from the country, leaving the Turks to face Russian and Syrian troops on their border. The remarks were meant as a deterrent, but they were based on what turned out to be a false assumption: that Erdogan would rather have the United States and the SDF on his border than Russia and the Assad regime.
“You can draw logic to what they were doing but only if you pretend what Turkey says out loud is meaningless,” said one person with knowledge of the discussions. “Jeffrey has been working on this file for decades, but he stopped updating his assumptions about Turkey a decade ago.”
On Dec. 14, 2018, Erdogan called Trump and told him he was going in, prompting Trump to announce via Twitter that the United States would be withdrawing all troops from Syria within 30 days. The call set off weeks of chaos within the administration, during which senior officials raced to convince the president to reverse his decision. Both McGurk and Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned.
Behind the scenes, Jeffrey and his team were urgently trying to contain the damage. Again, they pressed the SDF not to talk to Assad and his Russian backers despite the imminent Turkish threat, promising, “‘We will get you a better deal,’” said the person with knowledge of the discussions.
Jeffrey’s view is more nuanced.
“We did not give a military guarantee to the Kurds against Turkey. We gave them military guarantees against the regime, against Russian mercenaries and others, but not against NATO ally Turkey,” Jeffrey told lawmakers during the Oct. 22 hearing. “In fact, much of our conversations with the Kurds [was] that you had to find some kind of political accommodation with Turkey because you couldn’t count on us to keep the Turks out militarily.”
It was during this time in early 2018 that the proposal for a 20-mile “safe zone” along the Turkish border emerged. On Jan. 13, Trump tweeted that the United States was starting the “long overdue pullout” from Syria and would “devastate Turkey economically” if Erdogan attacked the Kurds.
By the end of February, it seemed that senior officials had successfully convinced the president to partially reverse course. Following a phone call between Erdogan and Trump, the administration announced that a small force would remain in Syria—a “peacekeeping group” of about 200 troops in northeastern Syria to maintain a relationship with the SDF and fight the Islamic State and another 200 stationed at al-Tanf garrison, a remote base near the border with Jordan, as a buffer against Iranian influence.
But the plan was contingent on getting European allies to step up their contributions to the counter-Islamic State fight and help monitor a buffer zone between the Turks and the Kurds. The president directed his deputies to secure funding for stabilization and resources for the counterinsurgency. Throughout the spring, Jeffrey repeatedly hinted publicly the effort was going well, but the additional resources never emerged.
“They walk it back on the premise that they will burden share and get Europeans in the zone, which never happened,” said the person with knowledge of the discussions.
In February, Jeffrey and then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan traveled to the Munich Security Conference to try to secure allied support for the mission to counter the Islamic State. But they found partners would not commit additional resources without a continued U.S. presence in Syria, said a senior U.S. administration official.
“We reported back to the president that ‘Hey, this isn’t working,’” the senior official said. “It isn’t that we tried to undermine [Trump]—he never had any intention of giving up the fight in northeast Syria—he just thought he could do it with an almost entirely on-the-ground coalition presence. [When we failed], he said, ‘OK, we will keep the residual force.’”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon was making plans for a deliberate withdrawal from Syria. But once again the guidance from the top was not clear, as Trump’s advisors squabbled over troop numbers and timelines. Nonetheless, between the December 2018 tweet and the Oct. 6 call, the Defense Department gradually cut the U.S. footprint in Syria by half, from roughly 2,000 to 1,000.
“Since January, the Department has been clear that it is conducting an orderly withdrawal of forces from Syria in line with the President’s direction to maintain our focus on D-ISIS efforts, and that effort continues to this time,” said Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson, referring to the effort to defeat the Islamic State. “The Department has also stated repeatedly that withdrawal will not be subject to arbitrary timelines.”
But on the ground U.S. soldiers were still building strong partnerships with the SDF. During the turbulent weeks after the December tweet, American and SDF soldiers stood side by side in Manbij despite repeated Turkish threats of a cross-border attack, the Army officer said. U.S. troops kept hearing that an order to fully withdraw from Syria was imminent, but week after week commanders said the order had not yet come down.
It was during that time that U.S. and SDF forces experienced a devastating loss on Jan. 16, when a suicide bomber targeted a busy market in Manbij popular with U.S. soldiers. The attack killed 19 people, including 15 SDF fighters and four Americans, bringing the tally of U.S. troops killed in Syria to four since the U.S. intervention began.
“Immediately, the SDF was there. They were helping us in the street even though all this [tension] had happened,” the officer told Foreign Policy in a previous interview.
In the absence of a fully formed plan to withdraw from Syria, the U.S. military continued with its mission, which called for maintaining a troop presence until political conditions on the ground were met. But far from leading the SDF on, top commanders “took pains to be deliberately circumspect in their conversations with Mazloum,” said one U.S. service member who fought in Syria, recalling conversations witnessed firsthand.
“As far as I could see, our senior commanders did not promise anything more than they could, and though they may have expressed their personal sympathy, they did their best to make it clear that the U.S. would likely not stick its neck out for the SDF any more than we had to for the defeat of the Islamic State,” the service member said.
“If they can, they will go to Damascus”
During the spring and summer of 2019, an impatient Erdogan began to again ramp up threats of a cross-border operation. In the hope of appeasing the Turkish leader, the State and Defense departments began making plans for a limited U.S.- and Turkish-controlled “security mechanism” that would provide a buffer between the Turks and the Kurds.
“What we’re working with is with Turkey to have a safe zone of some length along the Turkish border where there would be no YPG forces because Turkey feels very nervous about the YPG and their ties to the PKK,” Jeffrey said in a March 25 press briefing.
“We understand that. President Trump has made that clear to President Erdogan. But we also do not want anyone mishandling our SDF partners, some of whom are Kurds. And so therefore, we’re working for a solution that will meet everybody’s needs,” he added.
As part of the security mechanism, which was formally established over the summer, U.S. and Turkish troops began conducting ground and aerial patrols between the Syrian border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. Washington and Ankara also established a joint operational center in southern Turkey, where U.S. and Turkish military officers were responsible for daily planning and coordination of the patrols. Meanwhile, YPG fighters surrendered the area to local security forces, removed fortifications and tunnels on the border, and withdrew heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery by 12 miles.
In the weeks before the invasion, U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, maintained that the security mechanism was working and had substantially eased the threat of a cross-border Turkish attack. But these claims appeared at odds with Erdogan’s public seething. In late September, the Turkish leader said his talks with Trump at the United Nations General Assembly would represent a “last chance” to establish the zone—if that failed, he would take unilateral action.
At the time, senior State and Defense officials truly believed the security mechanism was the best solution, a second senior U.S. administration official said. But in retrospect, it is clear that Turkey used the safe zone—the joint ground and aerial patrols, as well as the mandate for the YPG to remove its defenses—as preparation for the invasion.
“Now that that is obvious, many believe that State should be calling the Turks out. … That said, they did the best they could dealing with allies that are anything but,” the second senior official said. “It just turns out that the Turks used it to prepare, and when POTUS gave the green light, it was all for naught.”
In the days after the invasion, Esper reiterated that he believed the United States did everything possible to deter it.
“In the little over two months that I’ve been on the job, this has probably been the number one issue that I’ve dealt with, week after week, with our Turkish counterparts,” Esper said on Oct. 13. “We’ve done everything we can to dissuade them from doing this.”
But in comments that would turn out to be prescient, Ahmed told Foreign Policy in an interview just two weeks before the invasion that she was concerned about the presence of Turkish troops and military equipment on the border.
“If they can, they will go to Damascus,” she said.
Since Trump’s October decision to abruptly withdraw troops from the border upended U.S. Syria policy yet again, many converging interests hang in the balance: Assad’s return to power, Turkey’s campaign against the YPG, the resurgence of the Islamic State, Kurdish autonomy, and the United States’ efforts to counter Iran.
Despite the events of the past three weeks, the Iran hawks and other senior officials are still trying to persuade Trump to keep a residual presence in Syria, framing it as a way to keep Assad and the Islamic State from controlling the oil fields to make it more appealing to the president.
Trump managed to eke out a major victory despite the drawdown. On Oct. 27, the president announced the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, during a U.S. special operations raid in northwestern Syria, just miles from the Turkish border. Information provided by the SDF was key to the successful operation—Abdi, the SDF commander, said the group had an informant embedded with the terrorist who turned over Baghdadi’s used underwear and a sample of his blood.
Officials and experts warn that such operations against the Islamic State will be much more difficult without a U.S. presence on the ground—and the relationship with the Syrian Kurds. Meanwhile, it is still unclear what the new mission to guard the oil fields entails for U.S. forces and whether it can be a sufficient bulwark against Iran’s creeping influence.
“We are less safe for withdrawing our forces in Syria,” the second senior U.S. administration official said.
Staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed reporting.
Update Oct. 31, 2019: This story has been updated to clarify U.S. peace efforts in 2017.