The top U.S. diplomat in Syria has written a “scathing” three thousand word memo detailing how Trump’s actions in Syria failed America’s allies and led to the commission of “war crimes and ethnic cleansing” during the Turkish invasion of territory that had been controlled by the Kurds. This is the first such formal complaint about Trump’s Syria debacle to be made public.
Ambassador William “Bill” Roebuck has been with the State Department for over three decades and currently serves as special envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIS and senior adviser for Syria after a lifetime of experience in the Middle East. So his description of the policy in Syria as “a catastrophic sideshow” that happened “because we didn’t try” to prevent the Turkish invasion, it should sting. But since in Trump-land anyone with experience is just condemned as a member of the “deep state” or a “never Trumper,” the only result of this powerful missive is likely to be Roebuck joining many other State Department officials in abrupt retirement.
Roebuck begins his memo with a summary stating that Turkey’s operation in northern Syria represents an “effort at ethnic cleansing, relying on widespread military conflict targeting part the Kurdish heartland along the border and benefiting from several widely publicized, fear-inducing atrocities these forces committed.” He also repeats that these war crimes and atrocities were committed while U.S. forces were on the ground in Syria, a circumstance that “damaged our regional and international credibility.” As a result, the United States has ”lost significant leverage” and been left in a less stable, more dangerous position.
But Roebuck’s particular concern isn’t the “damage to U.S. credibility” or the positioning of more U.S. forces to protect oil reserves than were necessary to protect human lives. His focus is on war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Roebuck believes the U.S. might have halted atrocities even after Trump gave Erdogan the green light to invade Kurdish territory. It would have been difficult, the diplomat admits, “but we won’t know because we didn’t try.”
Trump has repeatedly tried to paint his giving permission to Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan as a “win,” and insisted that the five day get-out-or-die ultimatum issued to Kurdish families after Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo paid a visit to Erdogan was a positive achievement. But graphic videos from the region have shown Kurdish families being gunned down along roadsides by ISIS-aligned militia, and Kurdish families have been forced to flee their homes and become refugees with nowhere left to run.
The families of Kurdish fighters can’t flee into refugee camps in Turkey, and they’re not being allowed in Iraq. Though there is a bipartisan bill before Congress that would allow some Kurds who worked with U.S. forces in Syria to come to the United States, that bill has been blocked by Mitch McConnell. In October, the United States hit a new record by allowing in exactly no refugees. Zero.
Roebuck declares that had Trump been clear to Erdogan that any atrocities would be met with economic sanctions or even a renewed U.S. military presence in Syria, Turkish forces might not have fall so quickly into supporting war crimes. Instead, Trump made weak threats of minor sanctions, then immediately withdrew them when Pence and Pompeo came limping home claiming victory on a result that was absolute defeat and betrayal.
The experienced diplomat acknowledges that there were no easy answers, and he even praises Trump for being clear in repeatedly saying that he wanted to get American forces out of Syria. And he notes that in many ways, the Turkish invasion is only a “sideshow” of the whole Syrian civil war. “But it is a catastrophic sideshow,” writes Roebuck, “and it is to a significant degree of our making.”
And just because it has been a catastrophe to this point, that doesn’t mean Roebuck doesn’t believe there are actions that could still be taken to improve the situation — or at least, keep it from getting worse. That includes: making it clear to Turkey “publicly and even more bluntly, privately” that it will “bear all the costs” for the damage it has done to the fight against ISIS and the atrocities committed against the Kurds; committing U.S. forces in Syria to “stabilize the situation for the Kurdish population“ and helping them re-integrated into the parts of Syria not under Turkish control; dealing with both Turkey and Russia to prevent further tragedies; and drawing down remaining forces “responsibly” rather than repeating the headlong flight following Trump’s phone call to Erdogan.
Since Trump has already declared the state of affairs in Syria as a victory, and brushed off the slaughter of Kurdish allies as allowing “two kids to fight in a lot,” it seems highly unlikely that Trump will make any public embrace of a policy that admits he screwed up—to the tune of thousands of lives. But maybe someone will advance these policies … and just not tell Trump.