James Jeffrey, outgoing State Department special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS gave an interview with Al-Monitor, reflecting on Turkey, the Kurds and “what everyone got wrong.”
Jeffrey said that he was against the election of US President Donald Trump, as well as the subsequent actions he undertook. His announcement of a reduction in presence from Syria back in December 2018 was detrimental.
This action, according to Jeffrey, shifted the balance of power in the region, and leading to displacement of Syria’s Kurdish population.
It also threatened to end the alleged success of the US-led coalition against ISIS and against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
“We felt very vulnerable and may have been a little bit punch drunk on fear,” Jeffrey told Al-Monitor. “I understand the president’s concerns about Afghanistan,” he said. “But the Syria mission is the gift that keeps on giving.”
He said that one of the Trump administration’s biggest goals was to reduce Iran’s regional influence, and destroy what the Obama Administration had established. Then it was also denying Assad from winning the war.
“Basically, first and foremost is denial of the [Assad regime] getting military victory. But because Turkey was so important and we couldn’t do this strategy without Turkey, that brought up the problem of the Turkish gripes in northeast Syria. So my job was to coordinate all of that.
So you throw all those together — the anti-chemical weapons mission, our military presence, the Turkish military presence, and the Israeli dominance in the air — and you have a pretty effective military pillar of your military, diplomatic and isolation three pillars.”
And those were actually effective up to a point, Iran’s presence was allegedly reduced in Syria, but Turkey began doing its own thing.
Regarding Turkey, Al-Monitor had the following question:
“Al-Monitor: Let’s move to the subject of Turkey. Secretary of State Pompeo sharply criticized Ankara during the NATO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. In recent Al-Monitor podcasts, Stephen Cook and Philip Gordon said the US should probably not consider Turkey an ally or a “model partner.” How would you recommend the Biden administration engage with Erdogan out of the gate?”
According to Jeffrey, before anything else, “first of all, you have to separate [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan from Turkey.”
According to him, Erdogan needs to be won over somehow.
“Erdogan is a great power thinker. Where he sees vacuums, he moves. The other thing about Erdogan is he’s maddeningly arrogant, unpredictable and simply will not accept a win-win solution. But when pressed — and I’ve negotiated with him — he’s a rational actor.
So if Biden sees the world as many of us do now, near-peer competition, Turkey becomes extremely important. Look what [Erdogan] has just done in eight months in Idlib, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia or Russian allies have been the loser in all three.”
However, one can’t simply concede against Erdogan, since that’s not how any progress is made, according to Jeffrey.
“Erdogan will not back down until you show him teeth. That’s what we did when we negotiated the cease-fire in October of 2019. We were ready to crush the economy.
That’s what Putin did after the Russian plane was shot down. The Russians have now twice sent strong signals to the Turks in Idlib. They chopped the shit out of a Turkish battalion. It didn’t work out the way the Russians wanted to.
You have to be willing, when Erdogan goes too far, to really clamp down on him and to make sure he understands this in advance. The Turkish position is never 100% correct. They have some logic and arguments on their side. Given their role as an important ally and bulwark against Iran and Russia, it behooves us to at least listen to their arguments and try to find compromise solutions.”
He then said that Turkey’s operations against the PKK and SDF, as having quite a few members from the PKK in it.
And how the Kurdish were supported by the US, despite the President wanting a withdrawal.
According to Jeffrey it is not certain if the US can reach an agreement with Turkey in regard to the Kurdish population, and that its not exactly in Erdogan’s hands. In his understanding, Northeastern Syria is a sort of issue of internal Turkish policies.
“I don’t know. Whenever you talk about northeast Syria, the most important thing is Turkish domestic politics. Erdogan’s battle buddy, [Devlet] Bahceli, can be summed up in one sentence: The only thing that matters is the Turkish national agenda, and in that there’s no place for Kurds.
That’s not the AKP’s agenda, of course. Erdogan, who has had much better policies toward Kurds and the PKK than anybody before him, is being hampered by the MHP.
If Erdogan feels that he needs a victory [to] churn up national sentiment, he might do something more. The problem is, he would have to do that in conjunction with the Russians because I don’t think he will go south of the M4. He and his people had always maintained that they were not interested in what happens south of the M4. So Kobane, for example. But that would require agreement of the Russians.
The Russians have made it clear — I have it on the highest authority — that the Russians do not want to see an expanded Turkish presence into Syria.”
Essentially, Jeffrey, more than once, makes it obvious that he considered the Russian approach to the conflict in Syria, and Turkey in that scenario, but also elsewhere as a correct response. He also thought that Russia didn’t go far enough when dealing with Turkey, and if it did, it would have much more success.
According to Jeffrey, the SDF and the wider Kurdish population could be included in Geneva.
“Who knows? We live in a world of Kashmirs and Nagorno-Karabakhs.
The point is, this [preserving the SDF] is our plan B. We have a plan A. Plan A doesn’t answer ‘how does this all end?’ Plan A’s whole purpose [is] to ensure that the Russians and Assad and the Iranians don’t have a happy answer to how this all ends, and maybe that will someday get them to accept Plan B. Meanwhile, they’re tied up in knots. They don’t see Syria as a victory.”
In short, Jeffrey felt that US President Donald Trump did more harm than good in announcing several withdrawals from the Middle East, and that this allowed Turkey to act largely with impunity.
It also made it possible for Turkish President Bashar al-Assad to achieve victory, and for Russia to expand its influence and capabilities.
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
- Turkey Is Reducing Military Presence In Syria: Russian Foreign Ministry
- U.S. Defense Officials Misled Trump On Number Of Troops In Syria To Halt Withdrawal – Report