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Members of the Kurdish Internal Security Police Forces of Asayesh take part in a demonstration against Turkish threats in the northeastern city of Qamishli, the de-facto capital of Syria's embattled Kurdish minority, on November 2, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

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.

Who is Roebuck?

Roebuck, is a respected 27-year diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain.

William Roebuck.

For nearly two years, he has worked on the ground in northern Syria with Syrian Kurdish and Arab military and civilian officials who make up what is called the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Roebuck has been an important interlocutor with Mazlum Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish military commander whose fighters have worked closely with American Special Operations forces to combat Daesh.

What did the memo say?

Roebuck 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.

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 Daesh resurgence - was a “sideshow” to the bloody, yearslong upheaval in Syria overall.

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A Kurdish man tosses his shoes at a Turkish military vehicle. Image Credit: AFP

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

“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.

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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Joint Turkish and Russian patrol seen near the town of Darbasiyah, Syria. Image Credit: AP

“One day when the diplomatic history is written,” he said, “people will wonder what happened here and why officials didn’t do more to stop it or at least speak out more forcefully to blame Turkey for its behavior: an unprovoked military operation that has killed some 200 civilians, left well over 100,000 people (and counting) newly displaced and homeless because of its military operation.”

Roebuck continued, “To protect our interests, we need to speak out more forcefully, publicly and privately, to reduce the blame placed on the U.S. and to highlight the Turkish responsibilities for civilian well-being.”

What is the memo’s significance?

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.