WASHINGTON — The top American diplomat on the ground in northern Syria has criticized the Trump administration for not trying harder to prevent Turkey’s military offensive there last month — and said Turkish-backed militia fighters committed “war crimes and ethnic cleansing.”
In a searing internal memo, the diplomat, William V. Roebuck, raised the question of whether tougher US diplomacy, blunter threats of economic sanctions, and increased military patrols could have deterred Turkey from attacking. Similar measures had dissuaded Turkish military action before.
“It’s a tough call, and the answer is probably not,” Roebuck wrote in the 3,200-word memo. “But we won’t know because we didn’t try.” He did note several reasons the Turks might not have been deterred: the small US military presence at two border outposts, Turkey’s decadeslong standing as a NATO ally, and its formidable army massing at the Syrian frontier.
In an unusually blunt critique, Roebuck said the political and military turmoil upended the administration’s policy in northern Syria. The administration’s actions left Syrian Kurdish allies abandoned, resulted in ceding territory the Kurds had controlled to Syria, Turkey, and Russia, and opened the door for a possible Islamic State resurgence.
While he described the events as a “sideshow” to the bloody, yearslong upheaval in Syria, he said that “it is a catastrophic sideshow and it is to a significant degree of our making.”
Roebuck, a respected 27-year diplomat and former US ambassador to Bahrain, sent the unclassified memo Oct. 31 to his boss, James F. Jeffrey, the State Department’s special envoy on Syria policy, and to about four dozen State Department, White House, and Pentagon officials who work on Syria issues. Roebuck is Jeffrey’s deputy.
The New York Times obtained a copy of the memo from someone who said it was important to make Roebuck’s assessment public. Roebuck declined to comment Thursday.
Roebuck’s memo appears to be the first formal expression of dissent on Syria from a Trump administration official to be made public. Pentagon officials were alarmed by the sudden shift in Syria policy, but top officials never made their views public.
Roebuck’s memo also comes as the president already has expressed disdain for some State Department officials because of their testimony in Congress during the impeachment inquiry over Ukraine policy.
For nearly two years, Roebuck has worked on the ground in northern Syria with Syrian Kurdish and Arab military and civilian officials who make up what is called the Syrian Democratic Forces. Roebuck has been an important interlocutor with Mazlum Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish military commander whose fighters have worked closely with American Special Operations forces to combat the Islamic State.
Roebuck focused his harshest criticism on Turkey’s military offensive and specifically on Turkey’s deployment of Syrian Arab fighters in its vanguard force. Roebuck added his voice to accusations by human rights groups that these fighters have killed Kurdish prisoners, including one of them lying on the ground with his hands bound behind his back, and committed other atrocities as they emptied major Kurdish population centers in northern Syria.
“Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an intentioned-laced effort at ethnic cleansing,” Roebuck wrote, calling the abuses “what can only be described as war crimes and ethnic cleansing.”
Roebuck’s memo comes at a tumultuous time on the ground in northern Syria and at a delicate moment for the administration’s Syria policy. Jeffrey is scheduled to travel to Ankara and Istanbul for meetings Friday and Saturday with senior Turkish officials and members of the Syrian opposition to the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria.
The memo came two weeks after Vice President Mike Pence agreed to a deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey that accepted a Turkish military presence in a broad part of northern Syria in exchange for the promise of a five-day cease-fire, completing an abrupt reversal of US policy in the Syrian conflict. Pence hailed the agreement as a diplomatic victory for President Trump, calling it a “solution we believe will save lives.”
The memo also came about a week after President Vladimir Putin of Russia met with Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, to discuss how their countries and other regional players would divide control of Syria, devastated by eight years of civil war.
The negotiations cemented Putin’s strategic advantage: Russian and Turkish troops have taken joint control over a vast swath of formerly Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria. The change strengthened the rapid expansion of Russian influence in Syria at the expense of the United States and its Kurdish former allies.
Under criticism for abandoning the Syrian Kurds and ceding territory they once held, Trump changed course yet again last month and approved the deployment of several hundred American troops to guard oil fields in eastern Syria against the Islamic State, even as hundreds of other American forces were withdrawing under Trump’s initial order.
Roebuck said the president’s decision salvaged an important part of the mission against the Islamic State and preserved some space on the ground for the Syrian Kurds to operate after they were forced to pull back from the border.
But the United States will pay a price, he wrote.
“The decision to stay is a good one, even if the ‘protection of the oil’ rationale plays into toxic Middle Eastern conspiracy theories that will need to be lanced with careful, sustained messaging reinforcing the truism that Syria’s oil is Syria’s and for the benefit of the Syrian people,” Roebuck wrote.