Bolton depicts U.S. envoy Jeffrey as an anti-Kurdish Erdoğanist in new book

U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton with his latest book, has placed a spotlight on U.S. Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey’s role in the relationship between U.S.’ Syria policy and Turkey. 

As mentioned in my previous column, Jeffrey was known for his “pro-Turkish government” stance in Washington for a number of years, after serving as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010. What Bolton’s book does is reinforce and confirm this already well established tendency by powerful quotes and first hand-witnessed anecdotes provided by an official who until recently was at the top tiers of the U.S. government.

Jeffrey comes off as being a staunchly pro-Erdoğan and anti-Kurdish official in the new book.

If we run the tape a few years back, we will see that Jeffrey was strongly defending Erdoğan’s policies at a time when many independent Turkey-watchers began criticising Ankara for its increasing human rights violations since the Gezi protests of 2013, prompting them to distance themselves with Turkish officials.

While many reputable Turkey figures and organisations stopped inviting Turkish officials to their think tanks during visits to the United States, or participating in meetings with the senior Turkish team, including Erdoğan, Jeffrey remained a notable exception. He became one of the most powerful voices defending Turkey’s strongman in Washington circles, while muting himself when it came to criticising the Turkish government’s human rights record. 

As a matter of fact, it is hard to remember any public setting in which Jeffrey criticized the Turkish government’s democratic backslide, similar to how Ankara’s regression was overlooked in the 1980s, during a Turkish military coup.

Bolton’s book on Jeffrey does not give us lonely witness accounts, but rather scenes that occurred in front of several U.S. senior official figures. One of those important accounts details Jeffrey’s role ahead of and during a visit by a U.S. delegation to Turkey in the early days of January of 2019. 

Let’s read from Bolton’s book:

“I briefed Pompeo on these discussions (on northeast Syria), saying we had prevented a very bad outcome in Syria and were verging now on constructing something adequate and doable. Pompeo wanted to be sure the State Department envoy handling Syria was present for the Turkey meeting, which I agreed to reluctantly. That’s because Pompeo himself had told me two days before Christmas that Jim Jeffrey, a former US Ambassador to Turkey, “had no love lost for the Kurds, and still saw Turkey as a reliable NATO partner.” Those were clear warning signs of an advanced case of “clientitis,” a chronic State Department affliction where the foreign perspective becomes more important than that of the US. Pompeo, Shanahan, Dunford, and I agreed to draft a one-page “statement of principles” on Syria to avoid misunderstandings, which Defense thought was particularly important.”

Apparently Bolton sees Jeffrey and his team as people gone native on Turkey, in other words, rationalizing their interests and defending the actions of Erdoğan’s government.

A day or two later, Jeffrey, according to Bolton’s account, “ … circulated a color-coded map of northeast Syria, showing which parts of north-eastern Syria he proposed to allow Turkey to take over and which the Kurds could retain.”

Why Jeffrey would go against the decision that was taken by the senior team is not easy to understand. Perhaps Jeffrey’s team has internalized Erdoğan’s rhetoric after repeatedly hearing over the years that Turkish forces would bulldoze and take over northeastern Syria no matter what and that Jeffrey team believed in Erdogan more than they believed in their own administration’s willingness to stop it.  

Bolton cites General Joseph F. Dunford, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  as saying at the same meeting in Ankara that he “didn’t like what the map showed at all.”

Dunford told the national security adviser it was “certainly his position” to “keep the Turks entirely on their side of the border with Syria east of the Euphrates River”, as Bolton had proposed.

“At this point, Jeffrey finally wandered in, and we went through the draft statement of principles we could give to the Turks,” Bolton writes. “I added a new sentence to make clear we didn’t want to see the Kurds mistreated and took pains to show we didn’t accept a Turkish presence, military or otherwise, in northeastern Syria.”

However, nine months after Jeffrey prepared a color-coded map in Ankara showing which chunks Ankara can seize in northeast Syria, in August 2019, at the State Department’s Press Room, Jeffrey followed a very different rhetoric. 

Jeffrey said, following a question about the possibility of a Turkish invasion, that there had been "no talks with Turks on protecting Kurds... or stopping an invasion, because we don't see an invasion."

Only two months after this statement, Turkish forces entered northeastern Syria, taking over a large chunk of land. 

It should be also remembered Jeffrey was one of the U.S. officials who practically oversaw “the security mechanism” between the Syrian-Turkish border to help convince Syrian Kurds to remove fortifications purposed to stop such an operation.

It is still not clear how we are supposed to interpret these two accounts since Jeffrey hasn’t made a statement. Ambassador Jeffrey perhaps needs to explain how he could in August tell journalists and the world that he saw no chance of a Turkish occupation in the region, yet in January of the same year circulated a map showing what parts to be taken over by Turkish forces.

Some have been criticising the U.S. envoy and his deputy Col. Richard Outzen for their overtly pro-AKP stance, a critique evidently strongly maintained by Bolton. Though, I disagree. I think that what these U.S. career officials are doing is nothing more than a “strictly business” approach in adhering to U.S. interest-oriented policies. 

I have also heard criticisms from some journalists and Turkey observers in the past about participation from these officials in some events of AKP-supported “think tank” centres. 

These are the same “think tanks” issuing “reportstargeting Turkish journalists who are trying to do their jobs. So how are we supposed to decipher what is happening? 

I also see this as a “nothing personal, strictly business” approach because I am old enough to remember some of the same U.S. officials now frequently go to pro-AKP organisations were moderating panels at Gülenists organisations in Washington D.C. up until mid 2015, at a time when Gülenists and Erdoğanists had been at odds and viciously fighting for more than a year and half since the December 17-25 corruption probes. This occurred of course at a time when it was unclear which side would prevail in a fight for survival. 

Opting to play for the winning team is not new. But what does the United States get in return for all this? 

Let’s look at the war theatres in which Turkey’s AKP administration is involved and how the United States fares on those accounts. 

First of all, Turkey’s deployment of the hard power in Syria is greatly helping the United States to push back Russian expansion, as well as checking Lebanon’s Hezbullah and Iran’s proxies in the region. 

Turkey’s presence allows Washington to stop all three enemy powers without troop casualties or financial cost. All Washington has to do is provide a bit of rhetorical support, which usually comes in Turkish. 

It certainly appears as though these officials find it in America’s interests to be seen as pro-Erdoğan for the time being.

In doing so they are willing to and forget Syrian Kurds or Turkey’s severe human rights violations.

The same can be said for AKP’s policies in Libya, where the United States is absent while Turkey’s involvement is prompting Russia to scale back on its expansion.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.