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Outgoing US Syria envoy says he hid troop numbers from Trump

James Jeffrey says Biden administration would be wise to follow Trump's approach to foreign policy in Syria
James Jeffrey announced his retirement last week, and he will be replaced by his deputy, Joel Rayburn, and top counterterrorism official Nathan Sales.
James Jeffrey announced his retirement last week and will be replaced by his deputy, Joel Rayburn, and top counterterrorism official Nathan Sales (AFP/File photo)
By MEE staff in Washington

The outgoing US special representative for Syria said he and his team repeatedly misled President Donald Trump on troop numbers in the war-ravaged country.

In an interview with the Defense One website on Thursday, James Jeffrey rebuffed claims there was a troop withdrawal from northeast Syria, and said the real numbers of soldiers stationed there was "a lot more" than the 200 Trump decided would remain in 2019. 

"We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there," Jeffrey said.

In the wide-ranging interview, Jeffrey said despite Trump's repeated announcements that he would withdraw forces from the country, he was always persuaded to keep a small team there.

"What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal," Jeffrey said.

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"When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out," he said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State (IS) group.

"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."

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The veteran diplomat, who is stepping down later this month from his role as US special representative for Syria and the special envoy for the global coalition to defeat IS, also said the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden would be wise to follow Trump's approach to the country.

"Nobody really wants to see President Trump go, among all our allies [in the Middle East]," he said. "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."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that Joel Rayburn, the current deputy assistant secretary for Levant affairs and special envoy for Syria, would replace Jeffrey as the special representative for Syria while Ambassador Nathan Sales, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, was designated as the anti-IS coalition special envoy.

Last week, Jeffrey said there would be "no change" to the US troop numbers in Syria following Biden's election victory.

Washington may not diverge on its position in Syria even under the Biden presidency, including present sanctions and relations with Iranian presence in the war-torn country, Jeffrey said, noting that Biden may actually pursue a similar foreign policy approach to Trump in the region.

"If [US allies in the Middle East] had to pick somebody else to come, it would be Joe Biden," Jeffrey said.

"I can't predict how Joe Biden would act [but] of all of his decisions that I was involved in, and there were many, he is more of a transactional guy by his nature. 

"I can't see him giving either the Bush speech or the [Obama] Cairo speech. And that's a good thing," he added.

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