U.S. Envoy in Syria Says Not Enough Was Done to Avert Turkish Attack

On the Turkish side of the border with Tel Abyad, Syria, children watch as Free Syrian Army fighters move along the boundary in Akcakale, Turkey, in October. The senior American diplomat in northern Syria criticized the Trump administration for failing to try harder to deter Turkey from invading northern Syria last month. —Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — 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 a searing internal memo, the diplomat, William V. Roebuck, raised the question of whether tougher U.S. 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,” 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 U.S. military presence at two border outposts, Turkey’s decadeslong standing as a NATO ally and its formidable army massing at the Syrian frontier.

In an unusually blunt critique, 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.

But, he said, “it is a catastrophic sideshow and it is to a significant degree of our making.”

Roebuck, a respected 27-year diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, sent the unclassified memo Oct. 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. Roebuck is Jeffrey’s deputy.

The New York Times obtained a copy of the memo from someone who said it was important to make Roebuck’s assessment public. Jeffrey and Roebuck declined to comment Thursday.

Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, also declined to comment on 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,” Ortagus said in a statement Thursday.

“No one can deny that the situation in Syria is very complicated, and there are no easy solutions and no easy choices,” she said. “There will always be a variety of opinions on how this complex situation should be managed. This administration’s job is to do what is best for U.S. national security and the American people. That is what we have done in Syria and what we will continue to do.”

Roebuck’s memo appears to be the first formal expression of dissent on Syria from a Trump administration official to be made public. Pentagon officials voiced alarm by the sudden shift in Syria policy, but top officials never made their views public.

Roebuck’s memo also comes as the president already has expressed disdain for some State Department officials because of their testimony in Congress during the impeachment inquiry over Ukraine policy.

Roebuck focused his harshest criticism on Turkey’s military offensive and specifically on Turkey’s deployment of Syrian Arab fighters in its vanguard force. Roebuck added his voice to accusations by human rights groups that these fighters have killed Kurdish prisoners, including one of them lying on the ground with his hands bound behind his back, and committed other atrocities as they emptied major Kurdish population centers in northern Syria.

“Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an intentioned-laced effort at ethnic cleansing,” Roebuck wrote, calling the abuses “what can only be described as war crimes and ethnic cleansing.”

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