Senior US Envoy in Syria Blasts Troop Withdrawal

WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior U.S. diplomat has written a highly critical assessment of the Trump administration’s abrupt withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria, a decision that paved the way for an attack on U.S.-allied forces in the area, officials said Thursday.

In an internal memo, William Roebuck, the top U.S. diplomat in northern Syria, takes the Trump administration to task for not doing more to prevent Turkey’s invasion or protect the Kurds, who fought alongside U.S. forces in the battle against the Islamic State, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Turkish troops return from Syria after conducting a joint patrol with Russian forces on Tuesday. (AP photo/Mehmet Guzel)

One of the officials described the memo, which was obtained and revealed by The New York Times, as “lengthy and harsh.” The officials were not authorized to discuss internal documents publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Roebuck’s memo says Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops was deeply divisive, even within his own administration. The move was widely criticized by Democrats and Republicans as abandoning a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State.

Turkey invaded days after President Trump ordered U.S. special forces in the area to leave.

In the memo quoted by the Times, Roebuck said there was no way to know if more pressure on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have stopped the invasion.

“It’s a tough call, and the answer is probably not. But we won’t know because we didn’t try,” the Times quoted Roebuck as writing.

He also raised concerns about the possibility that Turkish-backed militias in the invasion were undisciplined and could commit atrocities amounting to war crimes.

Roebuck, a top deputy to the U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said the withdrawal of U.S forces had badly, if not irreparably, damaged the trust of the Kurds. The memo was sent to Jeffrey and a number of other officials who deal with Syria policy.

Jeffrey is in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, for discussions with the Turks on putting in place an Oct. 17 deal negotiated by Vice President Mike Pence that created a buffer zone along portions of the Turkey-Syria border. On Wednesday, a senior U.S. official said Jeffrey was raising concerns about alleged war crimes.

Trump’s order to withdraw from the northeast has been somewhat tempered by the deployment of forces to protect oilfields in Kurdish-held areas, some of which are vulnerable to attacks by ISIS, Roebuck wrote in the memo. But he said those deployments would play into long-held beliefs in the Mideast that the U.S. is only interested in the region for its oil.

The State Department refused to confirm or deny the existence of Roebuck’s memo, but offered a long statement defending the administration’s actions that tacitly admitted there is robust internal debate on Syria policy.

“No one can deny that the situation in Syria is very complicated and there are no easy solutions and no easy choices,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. “This administration’s job is to do what is best for U.S. national security and the American people.”

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