U.S. President Donald Trump’s sudden decision last month to withdraw troops from the Syrian border not only opened the way to a Turkish cross-border offensive, but also appears to have ended any possibility that his Syria special envoy James Jeffrey might find a way for Turkey and the Syrian Kurds who controlled the area to co-exist and both remain Washington’s allies.
From the beginning, Jeffrey made it clear that the U.S. relationship with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was always tactical and transactional given their mutual interest in destroying Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
Since his appointment as special envoy in January, Jeffrey has continuously sought to assure Turkey that the United States recognised links between the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.
“Under Jeffrey, policymakers sought to alleviate Turkish concerns to facilitate continued U.S. cooperation with the YPG,” said Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshal Fund. “The problem was for Turkey that cooperation was the concern.”
The United States “kept offering technical fixes for what, to Turkey, was a broader strategic concern,” he said.
“Turkey didn’t want to remove YPG forces from the border, it wanted to put a stop to the whole U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led autonomy project,” he said. “Offering Turkey increasing concessions on the assumption that Ankara actually wanted the U.S. to stay in Syria proved unsustainable when the U.S. president was not on board.”
As part of an agreement between the United States and Turkey, the SDF withdrew its troops and heavy weapons from the border in the belief it would stave off any Turkish attack. But on Oct. 9, three days after Trump announced he was withdrawing U.S. forces from the border area, Turkish troops and their Syrian Islamist proxies launched an offensive against the SDF, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands of civilians.
This led some to conclude that Jeffrey’s policies assisted Turkey and even amounted to a betrayal of the United States’ Kurdish allies.
“It’s hard to believe that James Jeffrey’s efforts weren’t in line with Turkey’s interests when you look at his treatment of the Kurds,” said Herêm Kerîm, a Kurdish analyst.
“Not only did he keep the SDF leadership in the dark, but he persuaded them to dismantle their defence structure and remove their heavy weapons from the border before Turkey’s invasion,” he said.
Kerîm also said that Jeffrey, either intentionally or unintentionally, had “failed to communicate what the Turks were planning and that makes him appear complicit … This policy of blunder and betrayal of the Kurds will make it very difficult for the Americans to find partners in the future.”
Namo Abdulla, the Washington bureau chief for the Iraqi Kurdish news agency Rudaw, also concluded that Jeffrey’s actions amounted to betrayal.
“Jeffrey made repeated public promises that the United States would protect the SDF if they were attacked by Turkey,” Abdulla said.
Jeffrey repeated these assurances at a press conference on March 25.
“We’re working with [the Turks] to come up with options to try to assuage their concerns without, again, leading to actions that we would not – President Trump would not approve – against our fellow SDF fighters,” he said.
Asked on Aug. 1 about the possibility of a Turkish invasion, Jeffrey said: “There are no talks with Turks on protecting Kurds … or stopping an invasion, because we don’t see an invasion.”
In some ways the Syrian Kurds viewed the presence of the small contingent of U.S. troops “as a shield akin to the one nuclear weapons provide to a small country against military threats from a more powerful force: they don’t need to be used to be effective,” Abdulla said. “In other words, the Turks would not have dared to attack if the U.S. didn’t clear the way.”
“The Syrian Kurds are not fools to dismantle their defence lines without being given some concrete promise of protection from the U.S.,” Abdulla said. He said he had “little doubt that Jeffrey was part of the betrayal” of the Syrian Kurds.
According to Kerîm, while Brett McGurk, the former U.S. special envoy on Syria, “worked diligently to build trust with the Kurds over a long period of time Jeffrey somehow managed to destroy it with his questionable approach to the equation and simultaneously inflicted significant damage to U.S. interests in the region.”
Jeffrey served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010, his fourth assignment to the country in a diplomatic career that began in 1977. That made it unlikely that Jeffrey remained neutral between the Turks and the Kurds, Kerîm said.
Unlike his predecessors, Jeffrey has repeated the Turkish narrative that there is no difference between the YPG and PKK. Conflating the two, Abdulla said, was dangerously simplistic since it was the basis of the Turkish argument that the SDF was an existential threat to Turkey.
The YPG would not likely follow orders from the PKK leadership to attack Turkey, he said.
“Unlike the PKK, which controls a rugged mountainous area with a small civilian population, the YPG is in control of large cities where their family members live,” Abdulla said. “Syrian Kurds know that attacking Turkey, as a NATO member, would be self-destructive while they are out in the open in the plains of northeastern Syria.”
Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, pointed out that Jeffrey is fluent in Turkish and is “certainly viewed as an honest broker in Ankara, even as the Turkish government has lost a lot of its contact points in the U.S. government and became quite suspicious of the U.S. bureaucracy in general.”
Aside from highlighting links between the PYD and the PKK, Jeffrey also “long advocated for the U.S. to repair relations with Turkey, which by definition would involve at least a downgrade of U.S. ties with the PYD.”
While the U.S. bureaucracy attempted to defy Trump’s desire to withdraw troops from Syria, Orton said, Jeffrey repeatedly stated that the U.S. relationship with the YPG was for a single purpose – to defeat ISIS – and even publicly said that Washington did not have permanent relations with non-state actors.
Orton said the PKK and its affiliates were not children, but rather “hardened revolutionaries who dislike and distrust the West, the United States above all”.