Jeffrey Wants the “Quagmire Mission” to Go on… “Stalemate is Stability”
Reem Issa Reem Issa

Jeffrey Wants the “Quagmire Mission” to Go on… “Stalemate is Stability”

Less than a week after announcing his retirement, James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, made comments last Thursday, 12 November to “Defense One” regarding what the US policy in Syria should be. The man whose main objective – according to him – was “turning Syria into a quagmire”, urged the new US administration, set to take over in January 2021, to adopt the current policy, that is, the policy for which he was the executive officer.

Earlier this year, Jeffrey declared during an event at the Hudson Institute that his “job is to make [Syria] a quagmire for the Russians”. He certainly worked hard to try to achieve that, and while he has gone above and beyond in pursuit of his objective, it seems from his latest comments to have fallen short of realization or was not at a satisfactory level of the intended damage. As such, based on his comments, he is clearly trying to make the case for not only defending the policy that he has carried out on behalf of Washington in Syria, but also for staying the course.

In order to be able to do that, Jeffrey has to do several things, including the following:

First, he has to defend the existing US policy in Syria, which he not only executed but also contributed largely to shaping. In order to achieve this, all Jeffrey has to do is demonstrate “successes” in Syria that any US politician (or even ordinary citizen) would appreciate. This is accomplished by noting how the policy achieved “denying Russian and Syrian territorial gains and preventing ISIS remnants from reconstituting.” Then later adding that the policy approached “the Middle East through a geostrategic lens and kept its focus on Iran, Russia, China, while keeping the metastatic disease of Islamist terror in check.”

In order to further support the existing policy, a comparison has to be made to recent past policies, and an illustration of failures thereof versus the aforementioned “successes” of the existing one. Specifically, reference is made to US policies in the region during the two previous administrations – Bush’s and Obama’s. In this regard, Jeffrey notes that the existing policy in “the Middle East has yielded a more stable region than either” Bush’s intervention in Iraq or Obama’s approach that made things worse and weakened the US in the region.

To ensure stronger buy-in and grab anyone who might still be on the fence, Jeffrey throws in other “benefits” of US policy in the region by playing the “Israel” card, saying that the approach in the Middle East has won the US friends through the “historical political tightening between Israel and some of the Gulf monarchies.” This is in reference to the so-called “Deal of the Century” and more recently, the wave of normalization sweeping the region, which from the US perspective is a huge accomplishment, not to mention that speaking up against it is practically political suicide in the US.

Second, he has to dissociate the existing US policy in Syria from the current administration, specifically, isolating it from Trump. By doing this, Jeffrey will ensure that the policy is not perceived as a “Trump policy” so not to be abandoned based on the US’ deteriorating international role and image due to the plethora of Trump decisions that antagonized many historical friends and allies. So, one advice that Jeffrey throws out there is that “it’s very important when the new team comes in, they don’t say, if it was made by Trump it has to be bad.” By this, he tries to make a “rational” appeal to not dismiss anything by labeling it a “Trump policy.”

This, however, might not be enough, so he goes further in dissociating himself and US policy in Syria from Trump, or at least relaying that decisions with regards to Syria were not Trump’s. This is key, so it is done first thing in the article, noting that Jeffrey “acknowledges that his team routinely misled senior leaders about [US] troop levels in Syria,” in reference to Trump’s decision to keep only 200 US troops in Syria. Jeffrey even boasts about lying about this by saying that he and his team “were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there” and that “the actual number of troops in northeast Syria is a lot more than the two hundred troops Trump agreed to leave there in 2019.” He even says with clear ridicule: “What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal,” in response to Trump’s withdrawal orders at least on two occasions, in 2018 and 2019.

In the article, however, Jeffrey ties this clear disobedience to Trump’s orders with the “successes” discussed above, to ensure that his actions or rather the policy he was implementing was successful. There is also clear hinting that this is not a matter of personally disobeying orders, but one can read between the lines that Trump, who is actually the commander-in-chief, is not in fact the one who has the final word with regards to US military movements and actions. Naturally, Jeffrey cannot do this on his own. So, the message here is that Jeffrey answers to the ruling establishment, which has the final say, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

Just to personally exonerate himself from being associated with or a fan of Trump, the article starts with reminding the readers that Jeffrey was one of the people who signed the “Never Trump” letter in 2016, which condemned Trump, at the time still a presidential candidate, as being dangerous for the US. Just in case the reader forgets this, it is mentioned again later in the article by noting that Jeffrey still “stands by his decision to sign the 2016 open letter.”

Third, he has to make the case for continuing with the same US policy in Syria, which would be easier to do if he can make it seem to be the best option or even the only viable option. Doing this is probably the hardest part of the process and must lead to the conclusion represented by the key phrase in this regard, which comes at the end of the article: “above all, don’t attempt ≪transformation≫. Don’t try to ≪turn Syria into Denmark≫. Stalemate is stability.”

Naturally, we can understand what Jeffrey means here is that stalemate is the current policy of making Syria a quagmire; stalemate is keeping things as is, where no one wins and no one loses, but the war and conflict continue, as does attrition at all levels – militarily, economically, socially, educationally, etc. – due to this stalemate state. Stalemate is in fact not stability, it is not stability for Syria nor the entire region, not even for large parts of the world where the US’ main foes are, but this instability is exactly stability for the US.

Jeffrey reminds the new administration of the importance of keeping US troops to maintain the existing policy by saying “in much of Syria, the remaining US troops maintain a fragile stability.” Thus, letting the new administration know that pulling US troops out of Syria would have catastrophic results, and even encouraging it to increase their numbers to save that “fragile stability” from breaking. Hence the statement later about the importance of the stalemate policy to maintain stability.

Just to get buy-in from any skeptics, he ridiculously throws in a historical reference to highlight the importance of this “stalemate” policy by saying “stalemate and blocking advances and containing is not a bad thing… that’s what powerful countries – France, Britain, the United States – failed to do in the 1930s, and then they discovered they had to fight for their lives.”

The example is truly ridiculous, because what the Western countries did and their sabotage policies that cooperated with and boasted Hitler in the hope that he would enter a war only eastward, that is, towards the Soviet Union, is exactly what resulted in World War II.

Is This Because Jeffrey was Bred Poorly?

It is indeed noteworthy the extent of Jeffrey’s unrivaled insolence that he excels at through his successive statements, whether regarding al-Nusra, the quagmire, or the latest that summarizes the essence of US policy in Syria: attrition and not reaching a solution. This insolence may be rivaled only by Trump himself, whom Jeffrey tried in this interview to disown.

We believe that Jeffrey is really the man of the ruling establishment in the first place and not Trump’s man, meaning that his and Trump’s insolence together are nothing but different expressions of the insolence and criminality of the American financial elite with its different currents, even if the contradictions among them are enormous, but what unites them is one slate, that is the deep crisis that the entire US capitalism is going through, with its declining dollar at its heart.

We should also understand Jeffrey’s recent statements in light of the dismissal of the US Secretary of Defense and his replacement’s statements yesterday regarding the necessity to accelerate the withdrawal from the Middle East.

This means that Jeffrey’s recent statements are part of the US’ internal conflict over foreign policies, not only toward Syria, but also US foreign policies in general, between two main currents, one of which sees the necessity of a rapid retreat and the other sees the necessity of postponing that retreat.

Within these coordinates, Jeffrey’s statements are an explicit declaration of his fear at the possibility that Trump, in his last days, will actually implement the withdrawal, after dismissing those who played with him the “shell game”. At the same time, said declaration also reflects that he is not reassured that US policy in Syria will stay as is, even when Biden takes over.


In general, we can ascertain the following points about Jeffrey’s latest statements:

First, Jeffrey seems to have real concerns and he might have strong indications that US policy in Syria might soon change, and he thinks that this change could threaten his objective of turning Syria into a quagmire. Thus, he wants to ensure that the policy he worked so hard at shaping and implementing does not change by his departure.

Second, in order to get the buy-in from the policymakers but also possibly from the general public, he needed to lay out his credentials on the table, by illustrating “successes”, reminding everyone of the threats (Russia, Iran, China, ISIS/Islamic terrorism), and showing that he is a Trump’s man. Much of this will get support among the policymakers, but can also resonate with the general public, and he is possibly counting on the slim chance that there could be public pressure also supporting the continuation of the existing policy in Syria, if not from the general public, at least among some of those who have some margin of influence.

Third, and very much related to the above, Jeffrey wants to make it very difficult to whoever comes after him to propose an alternative policy, nearly making it impossible to propose an option that can convince policymakers would yield better results for the US.

What is abundantly clear now, and only days after announcing his departure, is what we have repeatedly said: despite the rhetoric and statements made by Jeffrey or others, US policy in Syria was never intended to lead to a political solution nor the implementation of UNSCR 2254. In fact, Jeffrey did not mention once in this piece anything about a political solution, quite the contrary, he proposes and defends and justifies a “stalemate” policy, which means exactly “perpetuating the crisis”.

(Arabic version)