In mid-December 2018, State and Defense Department officials responsible for Syria were frantic. During an unscripted phone call days earlier, the President of the United States blew through his red lines and told Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that all American troops would withdraw from Syria.
Erdogan had been threatening for months to launch a military offensive into the American area of operations in northeast Syria to wipe out the international Coalition’s partner force on the ground against Islamic State, a Kurd-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces. But the ground battle against ISIS was still going on.
Absent written orders and any coherent direction from the White House, Army Lieutenant General James LaCamera, the Coalition commander, turned to the State Department, where a new team led by veteran diplomat James Jeffrey, answerable to the secretary of state, had taken charge of Syria policy.
“My biggest concern now is force protection,” LaCamera said. To do that, he needed to deter Turkey from invading northern Syria, so suggested an option that he thought was in line with U.S. policy: to reinforce three outposts along the Syrian side of the Turkish border as a signal.
The State Department official balked.
“You cannot stop the Turks from coming in by outposts,” the official told LaCamera. “But you can provoke them by outposts.” If the general reinforced the outposts, he said, Turkey “will think that you’re protecting the SDF.”
“And that’s not what they’ve heard from the President of the United States, it’s not what they’ve heard twice from [then-National Security Advisor] John Bolton, and I don’t think it’s what they’ve heard from the Chairman” of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford.
“So they wonder what’s going on, and they have a long litany of: ‘You people in Washington tell us one thing, and the guys in the field do something else.’”
The commander was perplexed. Under U.S. Special Envoy to the Coalition Brett McGurk, U.S. officials had communicated to the Turks that American areas in Syria would be defended, according to sources with direct knowledge of the policy. LaCamera appeared unaware that the stance had changed.
“I’ll be honest, I think there’s a disconnect,” the general said. “This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
“The greatest threat to your force protection right now is if the Turks decide that this is all a ruse,” the official warned.
The general was silent for several seconds, then asked what the chances of an imminent Turkish attack really were.
“There is essentially no chance of a Turkish incursion at this point,” the official said. “This is in the realm of speculation, not fact.”
“The outposts should be pulled, and you should continue doing Manbij. The only commitment we’ve given them, dammit, is Manbij.”
But LaCamera did not pull the outposts.
The conversation marked a watershed moment in recent U.S. policy towards Syria and a shift that may have directly led to Turkey’s October 9 incursion into northeast Syria.
Just days before the December phone call, the team led by Jeffrey – who is now both the U.S. Special Envoy to the Coalition against ISIS and the Special Representative for Syria Engagement – told Turkish officials that if their troops came across the border, the U.S. would get out of the way.
The message was likely intended as an ultimatum to deter an attack, two sources with knowledge of the discussions told The Defense Post. But it was based on a misjudgment: that Turkey saw the U.S. presence in the northeast as a necessary buffer against Syrian government and Iran-backed troops on its border.
A U.S. dodge would leave the ill-equipped SDF to face the NATO army alone, forcing the militia to cut a deal with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, whose Russia-backed troops would rush to fill the Americans’ void and saddle Turkey’s ambitious president with an unwanted confrontation.
But Turkish officials appear to have interpreted the threat as an opportunity, likely because it differed from the stance put forth by officials left over from the Obama administration: that U.S. areas of operations in Syria would be protected against outside incursion.
After months of work to avert an invasion, Trump and Erdogan spoke on the phone again on October 6 and Trump agreed to pull U.S. forces from the north, giving Erdogan the opening he had been waiting for.
The revelation adds contrasts to the Trump administration’s repeated insistence that it did not give Turkey the “green light” to assault the SDF.
It also raises serious questions about how thoroughly administration officials may have been able to prepare for Turkey’s looming assault, which has left hundreds of people dead and wounded, more than 200,000 displaced, resulted in credible allegations of war crimes, and also appears to have left Washington’s Syria policy in tatters.
Shifting signals on force protection
“We told Turkey what exactly would happen,” Jeffrey told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. “They would not get very far in this offensive and they have not gotten very far.”
“As you see, they are now are in ceasefire agreements with both us and the Russians and we told them exactly how this would play out,” he said.
Jeffrey told Congress that Turkey’s incursion made him “furious,” but he also said the decision to not take military action to stop such an attack was deliberate, “and I absolutely think that was the correct decision.”
Asked by Congress last Tuesday about the alleged war crimes committed by Turkey-backed rebels, which included field executions of SDF prisoners and a female Kurdish politician, Jeffrey said, “We knew it could lead to all of the things you have mentioned and more.”
Ambassador Jeffrey did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A State Department official responded to The Defense Post’s request via email, writing that Jeffrey did not “green-light” Turkey’s operation. “U.S. officials, including Ambassador Jeffrey, as well as the President in his October 6 call with Turkish President Erdogan, made clear the long-standing policy opposing any such operation.”
“It was also long-standing U.S. policy” dating back to the Obama administration, according to the official, that the U.S. “would not use military force against Turkey to defend our D-ISIS partners.”
“And this position was conveyed many times to both the Turkish government and to our D-ISIS partner in northeast Syria, the YPG – and later – the SDF.”
But two sources with direct knowledge of the Obama-era policy pushed back on that characterization, saying that previous officials, including Jeffrey’s predecessor McGurk, never told their Turkish counterparts that the U.S. would stand down in case of an attack on the SDF.
Instead, they say that McGurk’s team warned Turkey not to encroach on American areas of operation.
McGurk and former Defense Secretary Ash Carter declined to comment for this story.
“We certainly never promised to defend the Kurds against the Turks, but the understanding was always that areas where U.S. forces were [present], the U.S. would absolutely defend,” said a former administration member with knowledge of the discussions.
U.S. forces are authorized to strike non-ISIS forces in self defense, and commanders have used this authorization to protect valuable territory on Syria’s battlefields, including from pro-regime forces near al-Tanf in May 2017 and the Conoco natural gas field from Russian irregular forces near Deir Ezzor in February 2018.
Under McGurk, that stance was leveraged to dissuade Turkey from attacking the SDF, the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the diplomatic discussions.
“We said ‘force protection,’ and the Turks never tested it.”
McGurk moved up his resignation to December 2018 in protest of Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw all American forces from Syria without consulting advisors or warning U.S. allies.
At the time, Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, had been serving as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement since August 2018. The veteran diplomat took on McGurk’s role as Coalition envoy following the latter’s resignation.
The change in rhetoric towards Turkey may have been part of Jeffrey’s efforts to slacken the dangerous tensions with Ankara.
‘We don’t have permanent relations with substate entities’
Turkish officials had hotly protested Washington’s arming of the predominately-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which became the backbone of the Coalition’s partner force after the SDF’s formation in 2015. Already by the end of 2017, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had called for McGurk to be fired and Turkey’s prosecutor general claimed to have opened an investigation into the Coalition envoy for supporting the Kurdish militia.
Ankara considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally-designated terrorist group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
Speaking to The Defense Post in June 2018 prior to his appointment, Jeffrey said U.S. Syria policy under then-National Security Advisor John Bolton had taken on a new strategic purpose as ISIS diminished: countering Iran.
That task, and bringing Assad to the negotiating table, would require a sustained U.S. troop presence in Syria, long after the defeat of ISIS, Assistant Secretary for Near East Policy David Satterfield had told Congress earlier that year.
“Jeffrey thought he could enlist Turkey in the broader anti-Iran bullshit,” a source with knowledge of the policy said. “And to pressure the Russians.”
“We can’t do any of the things we’re doing in Syria without the active participation, cooperation, coordination with Turkey,” Jeffrey said at a public event in Washington last November. “We don’t have permanent relations with substate entities,” he said a month later, just days before Trump announced the first U.S. troop withdrawal following a phone call with Erdogan.
McGurk, whose team had already opened channels with Russian officials in order to lay groundwork to negotiate a future for the SDF, was edged out of decision-making processes even prior to his resignation, the sources said.
“Rapprochement with Turkey was impossible with McGurk on the team,” said Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues program at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“That changed under Jeffrey. The Turks saw him as hope,” Slim told The Defense Post.
U.S. diplomats under Jeffrey’s direction sought to assuage Ankara’s fears by demonstrating that, as one official put it, “the United States was not partnering in some plot against it with the YPG and that there was no buildup of forces that would threaten Turkey.”
The shift in attitude led to disagreements between the State and Defense Departments on how to address the problem.
The Defense Post exclusively reported in January that State Department officials advised then-Coalition commander LaCamera to pull U.S. forces from three outposts along the Syrian side of the Turkish border following Trump’s sudden withdrawal announcement in December.
At the time, Turkey was threatening an imminent attack against the YPG. Trump had unexpectedly told Erdogan in a phone call on December 14 that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, setting off a frantic effort among administration officials to prevent an incursion and prepare for a safe withdrawal.
LaCamera was perplexed, apparently having considered the border outposts to be a means of deterring Turkey. “I’ll be honest, I think there’s a disconnect,” he said. “This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
“The greatest threat to your force protection right now is if the Turks decide that this is all a ruse,” the official replied.
“There is essentially no chance of a Turkish incursion at this point. This is in the realm of speculation, not fact.”
‘They never said they would withdraw’
By the time of the December phone call, State Department officials had already received explicit assurances from Turkish officials that U.S. forces would not be targeted in the incursion.
“It was understood first of all that neither side would ever engage the other regardless of what happened,” Jeffrey told Congress last week.
But the SDF received a very different message from Jeffrey’s team and the U.S. military, two senior northeast Syria officials said.
“They never said they would withdraw, or that they’d open the door to [Turkey’s] assault,” Ilham Ahmed, President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political arm, told The Defense Post.
“They always said they would defend our region and not withdraw until a political settlement was reached. This was always their position, from Brett McGurk’s time until Jeffrey’s,” she said.
U.S. officials never promised the SDF they would defend them against Turkey, but still, Ahmed said, “they assured they would not leave us vulnerable to attacks, and just said that they must maintain a balance in their relationship with us and with Turkey.”
“We did not want it to arrive at a point where the Americans sided with Turkey over us,” she said. “That’s why we went along with the security mechanism” – a series of steps to ease tensions by destroying defenses, withdrawing YPG personnel and heavy weapons from the border, raising local military councils to provide security and allowing joint U.S.-Turkey patrols inside Syria.
“We did not know that filling our trenches and withdrawing the troops and heavy weapons to a distance of 20 miles was a prelude to an attack.”
‘It was never inevitable’
Jeffrey may have had good reason to downplay his foreknowledge of the withdrawal plan before Congress last week.
“The U.S. has been clear from the beginning with Turkey, dating back to the December 2018 phone call, that if Ankara chose to invade, the United States would get out of the way,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The Defense Post.
“During various negotiations with Turkey,” Stein said, Jeffrey’s team “told directly to them exactly this: if Turkey invades, the U.S. will leave Syria.”
The intent, Stein said, was to corner Turkish officials into continued cooperation on the security mechanism.
And without clear guidance from Trump about the December withdrawal order, “Everybody rushed to interpret it however they want. And that’s why Turkey got so frustrated,” Stein said.
Critics say Jeffrey’s team sent conflicting messages to various sides, including European allies, throughout border crisis in order to carry forth a precarious strategy that was divorced from realities on the ground and ignored the stated intentions of both Trump and Erdogan.
Others say that Washington’s two primary interests in the crisis – protecting the SDF while preserving the alliance with Turkey – were irreconcilable.
“This was always going to happen,” Stein said, “because the Turks were always going to come through.”
“Diplomatically we were in an impossible position anyway because of who we partnered with,” said Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria. “People warned the Obama administration about it. People warned the Trump administration.”
“This was a ticking time bomb in the U.S. effort against ISIS in Syria,” Ford told The Defense Post.
Jeffrey long criticized the decision to support the YPG. But speaking to Congress last week, he disagreed that the policy had been doomed all along. The incursion, he said, “was a very real possibility. It was never inevitable.”
But SDC officials said Jeffrey’s team offered them no other option for survival in case the security mechanism failed. U.S. officials did not push for the SDC’s inclusion in Syria’s constitutional committee, which convened in Geneva on Wednesday.
Turkey had threatened for years to withdraw from the Geneva political process if SDC members were included, sources close to the discussions told The Defense Post.
To the south, the Assad government vowed repeatedly to retake the northeast by force, and Russia publicly supports a re-unified Syria under Damascus’ centralized control.
Just prior to his resignation in December, McGurk personally advised northeast Syria leaders to approach the Syrian regime to cut a reconciliation deal.
But Jeffrey’s team pulled them back.
“They always told us if you reach out to the regime, we will withdraw from the area,” Ahmed told Foreign Policy last week. One administration official also threatened to sanction them.
“If that’s true, that really is diplomatic malpractice,” Ford said, pointing out that Trump had repeatedly said he wanted to withdraw troops from Syria since his 2016 election campaign.
“I think because everyone was focused on Iran and not Syria, there was a wide space of maneuver for the guys on the ground. That’s risky, when the president’s going in one direction and they want to go in a different direction.”
“This tells me that the National Security Council process is really broken,” Ford said. “Something really went haywire there.”
“The staff essentially put together a policy at odds with the president of the United States,” a source with knowledge of the policy told The Defense Post.
“The bureaucracy, which bucks the president, essentially is running a shadow foreign policy.”
The plan: build a NATO front in Syria
The Jeffrey team’s strategy may have boxed the SDF into a corner from which there was no escape if Erdogan and Trump were ever to come to terms on their own.
The ostensible plan, according to Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, was to lay the groundwork for an eventual tripartite agreement between Russia, Turkey and the U.S., in which Turkish and U.S.-controlled areas of Syria were merged.
“The idea was, if you could work out some sort of synchronized arrangement between the SDF zone and the Turkish zone in Euphrates Shield, using Manbij as a pivot point, you could create one larger NATO zone that can be used to apply pressure and leverage on Assad and Russia,” Heras said.
The policy had been in the works since the spring of 2018, around the time Bolton became National Security Advisor, and was spearheaded by Joel Rayburn, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Syria.
The U.S. long suffered from lack of leverage to bring Assad and Russia to the table in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which supports “free and fair” elections under U.N. supervision, “to the highest international standards,” with all Syrians eligible to participate.
The plan, Stein said, was grafted onto the Iran maximum-pressure campaign. Despite warnings from within the U.S. government that Turkey wanted the U.S. out of the northeast, Jeffrey’s team saw Ankara as a possible ally in pressuring Iranian forces to leave Syria, a mutual objective the Trump administration shares with Syria’s neighbor Israel.
“But what you had to solve was the SDF issue,” Stein said. “The issue they always had is that it was a three-party negotiation,” and the YPG and Turkey were ultimately not willing to compromise.
The U.S. diplomatic team, Stein said, “basically wanted to try to get these two groups to quasi work together so they could establish the united front” against Iran, Assad and Russia.
“The first piece of that plan was to get a workable security mechanism or safe zone. The Manbij roadmap was supposed to fulfill that. It was supposed to be Manbij, then Raqqa then Tal Abyad,” Heras said.
Turkey first threatened to attack the city of Manbij after the U.S. pushed the SDF west of the Euphrates river to capture the city, against Ankara’s objections, in August 2016.
In June 2018, the U.S. and Turkey agreed to a “roadmap” for Manbij that stipulated the removal of the YPG from the city and joint U.S.-Turkey patrols in the area. But Turkish officials insisted the YPG never fully withdrew, and repeatedly accused the U.S. of stalling.
With Manbij as a center for trade, “over time, with two synchronized zones under NATO purview, the resources in those two zones combined with the power of the international actors that support that zone, would be used as gravitational pull to bring Russia to the table in a way that would benefit the U.S. position,” Heras said.
“The idea was you’d have synchronized governance systems, one SDF, one Turkish-backed.”
Through the summer of 2019, local military councils under the nominal authority of civilian councils sprung up in Raqqa, Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ayn, Tabqa, Qamishli, al-Hol and elsewhere.
That plan remained in place right up to Trump’s October 6 phone call with Erdogan, three sources close to Jeffrey’s team told The Defense Post.
But critics say it was destined to fail. Turkey and the YPG were not willing to compromise, and besides, Erdogan had other options.
“The December call was a signal to the Turks that somebody in the White House would listen to their demands, and they began working on that angle,” Randa Slim said.
‘The Turks and the Kurds and Jim Jeffrey will still be there’
Washington launched into action following Trump’s December 2018 call with Erdogan. Under the instructions of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Jeffrey was among the U.S. officials leading a coordinated yet seat-of-the-pants plan to stall the troop withdrawal and find a way to scale down Turkey’s military demands.
“The troops may leave but the Turks and the Kurds and Jim Jeffrey will still be there,” the diplomat said at the time.
A delegation was planned to Turkey to “sit down with the serious Turks” to determine Ankara’s precise battle plan, while ignoring “all bullshit rhetoric from Erdogan” in hopes of reaching a workable compromise on the ground.
“If it turns out that we have no love from the Turks, then that’ll be a different situation. That will be back to presidential-level calls,” an official said at the time.
During an urgent conversation with the U.K. ambassador to Washington, a U.S. official floated the possibility of setting up peace talks between Turkey and the PYD once pressure on Erdogan’s AKP party was released after local elections in March.
“It’s possible, but not possible now,” the official told the British ambassador. But the AKP lost those elections in the key city of Istanbul, a major symbolic blow to Erdogan, who had only to gain by stoking a war against what he called the PKK in Syria.
So for nearly a year, a team of national security officials led by Jeffrey shuttled between Washington, Ankara and northeast Syria to glean a way out of Erdogan’s threats to smash the U.S.-led Coalition’s 60,000-strong indigenous ground force against ISIS.
But with Erdogan vowing to obliterate the YPG and purge its political wing, the PYD, from majority-Kurdish border areas, northern Syrian officials were reluctant to make any concessions at all.
“We agreed to 5 km,” a senior SDC official told The Defense Post. “We did not want [Turkish] patrols in our territory.”
The impasse left Jeffrey’s team to split the difference, offering piecemeal concessions every time Ankara threatened to invade, or when Erdogan threatened to call Trump.
The Americans eventually allowed Turkey to conduct joint air and ground patrols on the Syrian side of the border, against the wishes of the SDF and SDC.
U.S. officials pushed to get Turkish aircraft on the Coalition’s Air Tasking Order run out of Udeid Air Base in Qatar, a trust-building move under the guise of allowing Turkey to conduct counter-ISIS air operations. That worried northeast Syrian leaders, who had repeatedly called on the U.S. to maintain a no-fly zone over their area.
“Until then they had promised us continuously that the airspace would be closed, and that they would not accept a clash with their ally Turkey,” Ilham Ahmed said. “We trusted it really, because the soldiers always kept their promises.”
The SDC also rejected Turkey’s threats to resettle up to two million mostly-Arab Syrian war refugees in the remaining Kurdish areas in the northeast, calling Erdogan’s proposal a plan of “ethnic cleansing.”
Turkey’s economy has groaned under the weight of nearly four million Syrian refugees. Ankara launched two prior incursions into northwest Syria, where Ankara claims to have deposited some 300,000 Syrian refugees, many in the majority-Kurdish Efrin enclave as thousands of others – mostly Kurds – fled.
The SDF flatly rejected this plan, and announced it would only accept screened and vetted returnees who had originated from northeast Syria.
On August 7, the U.S. and Turkey announced a tentative agreement to jointly administer the border zone. American officials were conspicuously mute on what they had agreed to, but Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar later implied Turkish aircraft had been explicitly allowed over the area.
A month later, a Pentagon official mentioned the U.S. was willing to help facilitate Turkey’s transfer of refugees into the northeast, on the condition the returns took place with international assistance and adhering to U.N. “voluntary, safe and dignified” guidelines.
Jeffrey later told Congress he did not think Erdogan could realistically carry out the plan. “My assessment is, he is not going to get that, or anything close to that.”
Thus the three sides held irreconcilable positions on the refugee question. But a senior SDC official said they had no choice but to continue with the security mechanism, which Jeffrey’s team portrayed as the only way forward to a peace deal with the Turkish government.
Ilham Ahmed told The Defense Post that the SDF stuck by the Americans in large part because of reassurances by the U.S. military.
“They have always said that America will not stay here forever, but at least until a political situation was reached,” she said.
The next step for Jeffrey’s team was to offer Turkey patrol bases inside Syrian territory.
But the SDF rejected it.
By the end of September, U.S. officials had begun worrying about a significant Turkish military buildup on the border.
Two senior SDC officials who spoke to The Defense Post said they raised the concern directly with Jeffrey, but the American diplomat said there was little he could do other than arrange another phone call between Trump and Erdogan.
Asked if Jeffrey seemed optimistic that another call might resolve the crisis, one of the Kurdish officials hesitated.
“No. Not really.”
‘I’ve been wrong as least as much as I’ve been right’
Days before the phone call, sources close to the diplomats say they were confident Erdogan’s threats were not serious.
“Their standard line you would hear from them was ‘Every day the Turks are talking is a day they aren’t invading,’” the source with knowledge of the discussions said.
“It wasn’t nefarious,” the source said. “It was incompetence.”
“The most egregious part is that we lied to the SDF the entire time.”
On October 6, Trump and Erdogan spoke on the phone. Hours later, the White House announced that Turkey’s incursion was imminent, and that U.S. troops would evacuate the border in the vicinity of the operation.
“One day before the attack the Americans told us that Turkey would start the attack and that [the U.S.] would open the airspace to them,” the SDC official told The Defense Post.
“At the start of the offensive, [the U.S. military] was monitoring Turkish movements and shelling. But they didn’t do anything. They only said that they won’t face Turkey.”
As Turkish air and artillery strikes slammed into civilian neighborhoods along the border, SDF commander General Mazlum Abdi pleaded with Jeffrey’s deputy, William Roebuck, to either stop Turkey’s assault or move U.S. forces out of the way so the Kurdish leader could turn to Russia for protection.
“There are two forces in Syria that can stop this massacre: The United States and Russia,” Mazlum reportedly said. The commander demanded to know if Jeffrey’s team intended to allow Turkey to take 30 km of Kurdish-majority lands.
“You are leaving us to be slaughtered,” Mazlum said. “You have sold us. This is immoral.”
Roebuck, according to CNN, told Mazlum to sit tight until he consulted with James Jeffrey.
The U.S. negotiated a supposed ceasefire eight days later. The agreement called on the SDF to withdraw from Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in exchange for a permanent “halt” in Turkey’s hostilities.
A senior State Department official described the plan for the ceasefire in a call with reporters a week earlier, one day into the invasion.
“Turkey has negotiated in the past with the PKK, it has had ceasefires with the PKK, and in fact, it has negotiated with the political wing of the YPG in Syria for several years until 2015.”
“That’s the path the president would most prefer to do, a negotiated settlement of this thing that meets everybody’s needs.”
The official seemed confident the Turkish incursion could be controlled through the threat of sanctions. “The Turks have given us general guidelines as to where they want to operate and what their military goals are.”
“As I said, we think they’re all a bad idea. But we have no indication that they – they have not given us any indication that they plan on any escalation further than what they’ve told us.”
To SDC officials, the Americans’ actions felt like a deliberate betrayal. “They never told us that Turkey was not satisfied with the steps,” one senior SDC official said.
“They put all the blame on Trump and said the president took the decision. They said they couldn’t do anything” to stop the invasion, the official said.
“I’ve been wrong as least as much as I’ve been right in predicting things on Syria,” Jeffrey said before Congress last week.
Mazlum, the veteran diplomat pointed out, still was willing to work with the U.S. on counter-ISIS operations.
“I think we’re in a better place now than we were in a week ago.”