Joel D. Rayburn

Visiting Fellow
Biography: 

Joel Rayburn is a historian of the Middle East and a former diplomat and military officer. He is currently writing a history of the Syrian conflict under a research grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation. Previously, Rayburn served as Special Advisor for Middle East Affairs in the office of Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) from January to July 2021.

From July 2018 to January 2021, Rayburn was the U.S. Special Envoy for Syria. In that post, he oversaw U.S. diplomatic activities concerning Syria, supervised more than 100 diplomats and civil servants across the Middle East and Europe, and, from November 2020 to January 2021, served as U.S. chief of mission for Syria. Until November 2020, Rayburn was also Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs, responsible for implementing U.S. policy concerning Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. 

Before joining the State Department, Rayburn served 26 years as a U.S. Army officer, with his final assignment as senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon on the National Security Council staff in 2017-2018. Commissioned from West Point in 1992, Rayburn served in assignments in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and the United States, including several deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. As a field artillery officer, Rayburn served in the 1st Armored Division from 1993-1996, during which he deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation Intrinsic Action and to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of NATO’s IFOR. After transferring into the military intelligence corps in 1997, Rayburn served at Fort Huachuca, Arizona and in the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. He also served as a Balkans intelligence analyst at the EUCOM Joint Analysis Center, RAF Molesworth, in 1999-2000. Rayburn then taught history at West Point from 2002-2005 and served as an advisor to General John Abizaid at U.S. Central Command from 2005 to 2007. In 2007 he served on the Joint Strategic Assessment Team assembled by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Baghdad. From 2007 to 2011 he was a strategic intelligence advisor to General Petraeus in Iraq, Central Command (Tampa), and Afghanistan. From 2011 to 2012, Rayburn was a senior military fellow at the Institute of National Strategic Studies.

From 2013 to 2016 Rayburn directed the Army’s Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group, where he led the writing of a history of the Iraq war and assembled operational lessons to be drawn from the conflict. In 2018, the group’s work was published in the two-volume study The U.S. Army in the Iraq War, for which Rayburn was co-author and editor.

Rayburn holds an MA in History from Texas A&M University and an MS in Strategic Studies from the National War College.  He hails from Oklahoma and lives in Washington, DC with his family.

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Recent Commentary

Caravan Notebook Podcast
Blank Section (Placeholder)Analysis and Commentary

The Syrian Crisis: A Focus on Daraa, ‘Cradle of the Revolution‘

interview with Joel D. Rayburn, Russell A. Bermanvia The Caravan Notebook
Friday, September 10, 2021

A discussion with Col. (Ret.) Joel Rayburn, former US Special Envoy for Syria.

The U.S. Army In The Iraq War – Volume 1: Invasion – Insurgency – Civil War, 2003-2006

by Joel D. Rayburn
Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Iraq War has been the costliest U.S. conflict since the Vietnam War. To date, few official studies have been conducted to review what happened, why it happened, and what lessons should be drawn.

Analysis and Commentary

The Coming Disintegration of Iraq

by Joel D. Rayburnvia The Washington Post
Friday, August 15, 2014

Nouri al-Maliki may have agreed to step down as prime minister of Iraq on Thursday, but the damage he has wrought will define his country for decades to come. The stunning collapse of the Iraqi state in its vast northern and western provinces may be Maliki’s most significant legacy. After nine decades as the capital of a unitary, centralized state, Baghdad no longer rules Kurdistan, nor Fallujah, nor Mosul, and might never rule them again.

Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance
Books

Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance

by Joel D. Rayburnvia Hoover Institution Press
Friday, August 1, 2014

More than a decade after the US-led invasion of Iraq, most studies of the Iraq conflict focus on the twin questions of whether the United States should have entered Iraq in 2003 and whether it  should have exited in 2011, but few have examined the new Iraqi state and society on its own merits.

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The Coming War in the Middle East

by Joel D. Rayburnvia Defining Ideas
Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Imagine a sectarian conflagration, fueled by Al Qaeda, raging across the Fertile Crescent.

Analysis and Commentary

Needed: A Political Strategy after the Deal Collapses

by Joel D. Rayburnvia Advancing a Free Society
Monday, April 16, 2012

Observers rightly say that the Afghanistan campaign will not result in a sustainable outcome without a political strategy to accompany the military operations NATO is conducting...

Featured Analysis

Needed: A Political Strategy after the Deal Collapses

by Joel D. Rayburnvia The Caravan
Monday, April 16, 2012

Observers rightly say that the Afghanistan campaign will not result in a sustainable outcome without a political strategy to accompany the military operations NATO is conducting.  In too many minds, however, formulating a political strategy has been equated to brokering a deal

Featured Analysis

"Blowback" - Iraq Comes To Syria

by Joel D. Rayburnvia The Caravan
Thursday, February 23, 2012

“Blowback” is the decades-old term coined by CIA officers to describe what happens when a covert operation produces forces that return to harm those who set it in motion.  The textbook example of “blowback” in living memory has been U.S.

In the News

Iraq After America

by Joel D. Rayburnvia Defining Ideas (Hoover Institution)
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

2012 promises to be a stormy year for the beleaguered country...

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Iraq After America

by Joel D. Rayburnvia Defining Ideas
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

2012 promises to be a stormy year for the beleaguered country.