Representative Jim Banks (R., Ind.) called for punishment on Friday after Syria envoy James Jeffrey said that his team fooled President Trump into leaving troops in Syria by misrepresenting the actual U.S. footprint.
Trump announced in October 2019 that troops would withdraw from parts of northeastern Syria, the country’s Kurdish region, in advance of a Turkish invasion of the area. However, the president was pilloried by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, who contended that the move would leave Kurds at the mercy of the invading Turkish army.
The president subsequently announced that the U.S. would keep roughly 200 soldiers in the region, who have been guarding oil fields held by Kurdish groups. The actual number of American troops in the area is not publicly known.
According to Jeffrey, a major withdrawal of troops from Syria never took place.
“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey told Defense One. The actual number of American soldiers in the region is “a lot more than” the roughly 200 Trump eventually agreed to.
“What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal,” Jeffrey went on. “When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out. In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story.”
Representative Banks (R., Ind.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, criticized Jeffrey’s remarks in a statement to National Review.
“Intentionally misrepresenting a matter of national security to the commander-in-chief is a dereliction of duty and should be punished,” Banks said. “I can’t think of anything more dishonorable.”
The Office of the Secretary of Defense commented that U.S. troops are continuing anti-ISIS operations in northeast Syria .
“The Defense Department works closely with the White House and Congressional leadership on the scope of our mission, including the associated number of forces in Syria. Our mission in Syria remains to enable the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Pentagon Spokesperson Commander Jessica McNulty told National Review. “The number of U.S. service members serving in Syria fluctuates daily due to operational requirements.”
The spokespersons for House and Senate Armed Service Committee Republicans did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Responding to the news, CNN reporter Jim Sciutto wrote on Twitter that senior Defense Department officials had “fooled” President Trump into keeping troops in Syria. Sciutto writes in his book The Madman Theory that military officials “would lobby the president to redeploy US forces elsewhere in Syria to protect the oil fields there…but, in reality, this was a stealth way to avoid abandoning Syria and the Syrian Kurds entirely.”
A former senior military official told Sciutto, “If you look at his tweets, they were definitive about leaving. And then we didn’t leave. And now we haven’t left, we’re still there, and that’s a good thing.”
Jeffrey initially opposed Trump’s rise in the electoral field in 2016. However, he subsequently joined the Trump administration as Syria envoy in 2018, and took up an additional post in 2019 as representative to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
Jeffrey praised the president’s overall Middle East strategy in his Defense One interview. The outgoing envoy credits Trump with achieving a “stalemate” in the region that contains military advances from various countries.
“Stalemate and blocking advances and containing is not a bad thing,” Jeffrey said. “That’s what powerful countries — France, Britain, the United States — failed to do in the 1930s, and then they discovered they had to fight for their lives in really important places like Paris and the South China Sea and North Africa.”
Jeffrey added, “The truth is President Trump and his policies are quite popular among all of our popular states in the region. Name me one that’s not happy.”
Editor’s note 11/14/20: This article has been updated with a comment from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.