(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. special envoy for the Syrian conflict pushed back Tuesday on the charge that, had President Trump not pulled back a small number of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria this month, Turkish forces would not have crossed the border to attack Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Jeffrey said the personnel withdrawn from the immediate area of the then-imminent Turkish incursion comprised “two outposts of about 12 men each,” who were there essentially to observe any cross-border firing.
“They were not a defense screen or anything else,” said Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Ankara and Baghdad who was appointed Syria special representative 13 months ago.
He said the other U.S. troops withdrawn had been based in the Manbij and Kobani areas – to the west of the area where the Turkish offensive was focused.
Jeffrey disagreed with an assertion by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) that U.S. forces had got “out of the way” at the insistence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“It isn’t that we ‘got out of the way,’ because we were not militarily in the way,” he said.
Jeffrey recalled that the U.S. and Turkey had negotiated a security mechanism in the area in August that included joint patrols, but that Erdogan had decided nonetheless to go ahead with a long-planned plan to send forces into northeastern Syria.
He had done so “despite a very carefully-packaged set of incentives and sticks.”
Romney did not buy Jeffrey’s explanation, however.
“Our president told President Erdogan that we were pulling out our troops, we did so and they attacked within a matter of hours,” he told Jeffrey. “And you say those are unrelated but it would seem to me that there was a relationship.”
Jeffrey’s subsequent exchange with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) was a combative one.
Cardin asked the envoy whether he agreed that the decision to pull back the forces in the area had encouraged Erdogan “ to move forward into northern Syria, and that that added to the national security concerns of America – which you’ve already testified to – in regards to facilitating Russia, Iran and the Assad regime?”
“No I do not think that contributed to this very tragic decision by the Turkish government,” Jeffrey replied.
“Do you really believe that Turkey was going to do this, this current engagement, even if American troops were in the region making it very likely there would have been a conflict between two NATO allies in northern Syria?” asked Cardin. “That’s not believable!”
Jeffrey gave no ground.
“Senator, let me explain this. If U.S. troops had been given the order to stand and fight against a NATO ally, I think you’re right; the Turks may have thought twice.”
However, he continued, “they have never been given that order, over two administrations – in fact, we had told Turkey the absolute opposite, that we would not oppose them militarily.”
“You don’t think Turkey was holding back an aggression against northern Syria because of the U.S. presence in that region?” Cardin asked.
“No, I don’t think that at all,” Jeffrey replied.
“Well, I tell ya, you’ve lost me on the credibility of your comments.”
Cardin said every military expert he has spoken to told him that, “Turkey would not have risked an engagement against U.S. troops.”
“That is absolutely true, senator, but the U.S. troops would have had to have had the mission of resisting the Turks,” Jeffrey said. “They did not have that mission. And a good question to ask any military expert that says that is, ‘Did they have that authority, and would they have acted without that authority?’”
“I think the answer is, no they wouldn’t,” he concluded.
Cardin, not hiding his irritation, asked Jeffrey whether he agreed with Trump’s decision to relocate the troops.
“I carry out the instructions of the president—”
“Do you agree with his policy or not?”
“I agree that presidents have to make that decision, not people in the bureaucracy, such as me,” Jeffrey said.
“For the record,” said Cardin, “you did not answer my question.”
Jeffrey told the panel that the conflict in Syria was a “devil’s brew [that] mixes together the three champions of Middle East disorder: Local despot, Assad, arguably worse than Saddam or Gaddafi; an ideological state on the march, Iran; and several variants of radical Islamic terror, from ISIS to al-Nusra. And all exploited cynically by an outside power, Putin’s Russia.”
He said the administration’s core objectives in Syria remain “defeating Islamic terror, restoring Syria to a civilized state, and ensuring the removal of al Iranian-commanded forces from that country.”