James Jeffrey Gets Kurdish Politics Wrong— and it Could Lead to a Fiasco in Syria

Last month, U.S. Special Envoy to James Jeffrey appeared before the House Foreign Relations committee to discuss the future of U.S. strategy in Syria. During the hearing, several members of the Committee brought up a crucial issue: the status and safety of Northeast Syria’s Kurds, who have formed the backbone of the region’s most effective anti-ISIS forces. Jeffrey dismissed each question with talking points about Turkish security interests. In doing so, he displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the Kurdish movement’s history and political goals— and a bias that suggests he cannot act as an effective mediator. This lopsided understanding of the conflict is one that could lead to ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Syria and Turkey alike.

Jeffrey deflected an early question from California congressman Brad Sherman with an inaccurate claim about the status of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. Asked about the “threat of a Turkish massacre of Syrian Kurds,” he argued that Turkey would not commit such an atrocity because it had never massacred its own Kurdish population.

Several cases in the past century alone show the historical illiteracy of Jeffrey’s claim. Between 1937 and 1938, the Turkish state undertook a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Dersim, systematically killing tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians through indiscriminate bombing, mass executions, and even the use of chemical weapons. Survivors were rounded up and deported to other areas to further change the region’s ethnic composition. A Turkish official said at the time that “Dersim should be handled as a colony, Kurdishness should be melted among the Turkish community, and then gradually they should be subject to Turkish law.”

During the early 1990s, as many as 4,000 Kurdish villages were depopulated. Over a million people were displaced during this campaign, 30,000 were killed, and thousands more faced torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests. A bill introduced in the US Congress to condemn the violence stated that Turkey had “used military force to deny [its Kurdish citizens] an identity.”

This pattern of has not changed in recent years. In 2011, a Turkish airstrike targeted a group of civilians near the Iraqi border, killing 34 people— 28 of whom were members of the same family, and most of whom were children. In the Kurdish city of Cizre in 2015, Turkish security forces burned a group of civilians alive, giving pieces of their charred remains back to families who asked about the fate of their relatives.

Jeffrey’s response also ignored recent Turkish actions in Northern Syria itself— though they serve as an explicit case study of what might happen if, as Rep. Sherman asked, Turkey attacks SDF-held territory again. Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, launched in January 2018, killed hundreds of civilians, displaced between 200,000 and 300,000 people, and saw Turkey-backed militias commit extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and forced religious conversions against the remaining population. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan explicitly stated that the operation was intended to change Afrin’s demographics, arguing falsely that Afrin was only 35% Kurdish and that Turkey’s intent was to “return” the region to its “true owners.” This intent was backed up by statements from other Turkish officials, who repeatedly claimed that the Afrin operation would allow them to transfer Syrian refugees in Turkey to the newly occupied territory— and even asked for foreign funding to do so.

Jeffrey has refused to acknowledge these facts on the ground before. In March 2018, he said that the “least worst solution” in Afrin would involve “allowing Turkey and local allies the run of Afrin province.” Such a statement is de facto acceptance of an illegal military operation and ethnic cleansing campaign, likely informed by the same ignorance of Kurdish history in Turkey that his HFAC remarks showed.

While misrepresenting Turkey’s record, Jeffrey also repeated outdated information about the Kurdish movement’s political aims. He referred to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a “separatist” organization— though the group has not fought for an independent state for nearly two decades. Abdullah Ocalan, the group’s imprisoned leader and founder, has instead put forward a model of decentralized grassroots democracy known as “democratic autonomy,” which calls for political transformation without seeking to change state borders. Jeffrey also said that the PKK seeks to “overthrow” the Turkish government— when, in reality, the group has repeatedly called for renewed peace negotiations to end the 40-year conflict, and when Ocalan himself has stressed the need for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war that respects Turkey’s concerns.

The same baseless accusation of separatism was leveled at the SDF. Jeffrey claimed that the US does not have a specific “political future” to offer them, but rather that “the political future we offer for them is the political future we offer for everybody in Syria … a democratic, peaceful government” based on the process laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

A peaceful and democratic Syria has been the SDF’s stated goal from the beginning. They have never sought secession from Syria, instead proposing that their decentralized model serve as a blueprint for the country’s future. The Social Contract of the Rojava Cantons, the closest document the region has to a constitution, says that the Autonomous Administration “recognizes Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace.”

The Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, is also excluded from the UNSCR 2254 talks that Jeffrey told HFAC were essential for Syria’s future.  When SDC Representative to the United States Sinam Mohammed asked about this at a Middle East Institute event two weeks after the hearing, Jeffrey laughed and referred the question to a fellow panelist, who also refused to answer. He also refused to acknowledge her second question on the occupation of Afrin.

Both the tone and substance of this dismissal were inappropriate for a professional interaction—  let alone for a US envoy speaking to a foreign diplomat. If an American Syria envoy is incapable of speaking respectfully with a representative of a Coalition ally that governs nearly one-third of the country, it is reasonable to ask how he can possibly engage fairly with that entity in negotiations.

These instances, taken together, suggest that Jeffrey’s understanding of the conflict is closer to the vision put forward by Ankara’s nationalists than the views of a neutral diplomat. Such an outlook is dangerous not only to the people of Northeast Syria, but to stated US strategy. The United States has repeatedly claimed that it seeks to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS in Syria. Turkey has taken several actions that hinder this goal– actions often directly related to its animosity towards Syrian Kurds. The Department of Defense found in 2018 that the invasion of Afrin aided ISIS by forcing the SDF to divert resources, and warned that “pockets of opposition-held territory and general chaos caused by the war gave ISIS safe havens” in Turkish-occupied areas. Brett McGurk, Jeffrey’s predecessor as anti-ISIS envoy, has repeatedly described how Turkey allowed ISIS and other extremist groups to freely cross into Syria through its territory, despite US complaints. In contrast, by the time Turkey intervened against ISIS in 2016, the SDF had liberated more territory from the terror group than Turkish forces ever would.

By showing a bias towards Erdogan and against the SDF, Jeffrey is both revealing his impartiality and taking the side of an actor that has hindered anti-ISIS operations. This calls his ability to effectively do his job into question— and threatens US prospects for achieving a peaceful and just resolution to the Syrian conflict.