Outgoing Syria Envoy Boasts He Hid True Troop Levels & Stymied Trump Withdrawal Efforts

Among the first of top officials to exit their posts even as votes were being counted last week was Ambassador James Jeffrey, who had been appointed by President Trump as special representative for Syria Engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat Islamic State since August 2018.

The 74-year old career diplomat took over the post after the resignation of Brett McGurk. Jeffrey has in the past been criticized as being too pro-Turkish and is seen as a Syria hawk, being among past foremost voices desiring regime change in Syria. Pro-Kurdish lobbying groups further see him as too much in Erdogan’s pocket. He’s also a Bush-era holdover, having been in a lead role among Bush’s neocon cabinet.

Jeffrey announced his retirement last Saturday and is already openly boasting about he hid the true numbers of US troops inside Syria from the White House

Early this week there was major administration house cleaning at the Pentagon: recently fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper with Ambassador James (Jim) Jeffrey, DoD image.

He further described in a fresh interview with Defense One that when in December 2018 President Trump ordered a full and immediate Syria withdrawal, he and his team successfully stymied the efforts to get the US military out of Syria.

Here’s what he told Defense One:

“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey said in an interview. The actual number of troops in northeast Syria is “a lot more than” the roughly two hundred troops Trump initially agreed to leave there in 2019

It’s now widely believed there’s anywhere between 800 and 2,000 American personnel in northeast Syria – though these commonly cited numbers could also be part of the “shell game” to mislead both Washington leadership and the public.

Jeffrey described Trump’s attempt to pull troops out of Syria as “the most controversial thing in my fifty years in government” and as a policy directive which had to be thwarted. Hence he played a “shell game” with troop numbers while convincing the administration to continue the occupation. 

Again, the career diplomat boasts about how he and others actively thwarted the commander-in-chief:

For Jeffrey, the incident was far less cut-and-dry — but it is ultimately a success story that ended with U.S. troops still operating in Syria, denying Russian and Syrian territorial gains and preventing ISIS remnants from reconstituting. 

In 2018 and again in October of 2019, when Trump repeated the withdrawal order, the president boasted that ISIS was “defeated.” But each time, the president was convinced to leave a residual force in Syria and the fight continued. 

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

This is also a man who four years ago signed the now-infamous “Never Trump” letter which had dubbed then-presidential candidate Donald Trump as a “danger to America” – Defense Post reminds the reader. 

While Trump has in the end kept mostly special forces troops in Deir Ezzor and al-Hasakah provinces ostensibly to “secure the oil” (or rather, to prevent it from being accessed by either the Assad government or Russia while crippling sanctions remain on Damascus), he apparently did shut down the CIA program to covertly oust Assad known as Timber Sycamore in 2017.

But as we’ve documented on multiple occasions, every time Trump signaled he was ready to pull forces out of Syria, deep state elements which make up Washington’s foreign policy establishment fought him at every turn

The Washington Post’s Beirut bureau chief is positively gleeful about this:

US officials have been lying to Trump – and the American people – about the true number of US troops in Syria in order to deter him from withdrawing them,” WaPo’s Liz Sly commented.

Jeffrey, it should also be noted, had briefly served as George W. Bush’s Deputy National Security Adviser as well as at times Acting National Security Adviser from 2007 to 2008.