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 an 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,” Mr 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.
Mr Roebuck said the political and military turmoil that upended the administration’s policy in northern Syria — and left Syrian Kurdish allies abandoned and opened the door for a possible Islamic State resurgence — was a “sideshow” to the bloody, yearslong upheaval in Syria overall.
Mr Roebuck, a respected 27-year diplomat and former US ambassador to Bahrain, sent the unclassified memo October 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. Mr Roebuck is Mr Jeffrey’s deputy.
The New York Times obtained a copy of the memo from someone who said it was important to make Mr Roebuck’s assessment public. Mr Jeffrey and Mr Roebuck declined to comment Thursday.
Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, also declined to comment on Mr Roebuck’s memo. “That said, we have made clear that we strongly disagreed with President Erdogan’s decision to enter Syria and that we did everything short of a military confrontation to prevent it,” Mr Ortagus said Thursday.
Mr Roebuck focused his harshest criticism on Turkey’s military offensive and specifically on Turkey’s deployment of Syrian Arab fighters in its vanguard force. Mr Roebuck added his voice to accusations by human rights groups that these fighters have killed Kurdish prisoners and committed other atrocities as they emptied major Kurdish population centers in northern Syria.
A senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters, told reporters Wednesday the United States had immediately raised the reports of atrocities with the Turkish government.