“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey, envoy to the global coalition against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) told Defense One on Thursday. Jeffrey added that the actual number of troops in northeastern Syria is “a lot more” than the 200-400 that Trump agreed to leave behind last year.
Trump’s withdrawal appeared to make good on his campaign-trail promise to extricate the US from its “forever wars” in the Middle East. Trump, who referred to Syria in 2018 as “sand and death,” angered a host of Pentagon chiefs and diplomats when he announced the near-total pullout from the country last October. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest when Trump first announced withdrawal plans in 2018, and Jeffrey said on Thursday that the decision was “the most controversial thing in my fifty years in government.”
Jeffrey’s predecessor, Brett McGurk, also handed in his notice when Trump revealed the pullout. Taking over from McGurk, Jeffrey and his team routinely misled the president to ensure that “there was never a Syria withdrawal.”
Even before he signed up to work for the Trump administration, Jeffrey’s opposition to the president was well known. Shortly after Trump was named as the Republican candidate in 2016, Jeffrey signed a letter declaring that the businessman and TV host “would be the most reckless president in American history.” The letter’s other signatories included a host of Bush administration security officials, who helped shape the policies that destabilized the Middle East and gave rise to Islamic State.
Despite his open and secret opposition to Trump’s policies, Jeffrey told Defense One that the president’s “modest” approach to the Middle East has yielded better results than George Bush’s military interventionism or Barack Obama’s apologetic overtures to Muslim leaders while arming extremist militias in Syria.
Trump, by contrast, has managed to put together a political alliance between Israel and a number of Gulf states, while maintaining relations with Iraq and focusing pressure on Iran. Conflict in the region is frozen in a “stalemate,” Jeffrey noted.
“Nobody really wants to see President Trump go, among all our allies,” 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.”
Trump’s withdrawal plans throughout the region have earned him the scorn of policy hawks in Washington. When the New York Times published an anonymously sourced report in June accusing Russia of paying Taliban fighters to kill American troops in Afghanistan, the Democrat-controlled House Armed Services Committee voted to deny Trump the funding for a withdrawal from the war-torn country. Before the Times’ report was published, Trump signed a deal with the Taliban to end the 19-year conflict, and White House plans for a withdrawal by fall were leaked. The report was later debunked by the Pentagon itself.
Trump has since moved to withdraw from Afghanistan again, tweeting last month that “we should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”
We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
A number of rapid-fire personnel changes at the Pentagon seem to confirm that Trump intends to withdraw further from the Middle East. Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor – a long-time proponent of ending the war in Afghanistan – was appointed on Wednesday to serve under new Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller. CNN reported that departing Defense Secretary Mark Esper had been pushing back against Trump’s withdrawal plans, calling them “premature.”
However, the results of this month’s election are still unclear, and Trump’s tenure in the White House may be coming to an end. Should Joe Biden eventually be declared president, Jeffrey advised the Democrat to stick to the Trump doctrine in the Middle East. “I think the stalemate we’ve put together is a step forward and I would advocate it,” Jeffrey said.
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