Former envoy to anti-ISIS coalition sceptical about US approach

“Turkey can’t operate hundreds of miles from its border in hostile territory without substantial US military support," said former US envoy Brett McGurk.
Tuesday 22/01/2019
Brett McGurk, U.S. envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, speaks to during news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, March 5, 2016. (Reuters)
Brett McGurk, U.S. envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, speaks to during news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, March 5, 2016. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - The former US special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition in Syria expressed his scepticism about the ability of the United States to continue leading the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Syria.

The US decision has strengthened the Syrian regime’s hand in the conflict, noted Brett McGurk in a column published in the Washington Post on January 20.  These were his first public comments since resigning as US envoy December 22 in protest of Trump’s announcement three days earlier that he would withdraw the 2,000 US forces in north-eastern Syria.

“Assad is staying,” wrote McGurk about Syrian President Bashar Assad. He noted that the troop withdrawal, which began January 11, has already pushed America’s Middle East allies towards Damascus as they try to counter the expected growing influence of Iran and other countries in Syria.

“It’s not a coincidence that Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates reopened embassies there [in Damascus] shortly after Trump said we were leaving,” McGurk said. “These countries, as well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, believe that engaging Damascus can help dilute Russian, Iranian and Turkish influence in Syria.”

In a television interview January 20, McGurk said Trump’s decision was a “total reversal” of US policy and assurances US officials had given to their allies and to Syrian Kurdish partners fighting ISIS

“There’s no plan for what comes next,” McGurk also said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” as he discredited Turkey’s plan to “take over” security in the northern Syrian city of Manbij, where an ISIS attack on January 16 killed four Americans. “We cannot expect a partner such as Turkey to come in and take our place or another coalition partner to take our place. That is not realistic.”

McGurk said he was sceptical the United States could play a leading role in the fight against ISIS in the Middle East without troops in Syria. “As the former leader of the coalition, I just don’t think that that is credible. I know what it takes in these coalition capitals for them to put their blood and treasure on the line with us. It takes American leadership and takes American presence,” McGurk said.

He also noted the limits of Turkey’s contribution to the fight against the ISIS.

According to McGurk, the US president “bought [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s proposal that Turkey take on the fight against the Islamic State deep inside Syria. In fact, Turkey can’t operate hundreds of miles from its border in hostile territory without substantial US military support. And many of the Syrian opposition groups backed by Turkey include extremists who have openly declared their intent to fight the Kurds, not the Islamic State.”

On CBS’s “Face the Nation”, US Vice-President Mike Pence sought to minimise the consequences of the American troop withdrawal.

“America is going to continue to support the effort until we drive any remnants of ISIS from the region and from the face of the Earth,” Pence said. The United States wants to “hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria” to the 78 other members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and “continue to support them with American assets in the region.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a similar point in a January 18 television interview. “We have forces throughout the region that will continue to attack ISIS in Syria proper,” Pompeo said.

McGurk, a veteran American diplomat, had served as the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant since October 2015 after serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and Iraq. President Barack Obama had named McGurk the special envoy. Trump kept him in that position when he took office in January 2017.

McGurk resigned his position two days after James Mattis quit as US defence secretary in protest of Trump’s announcement on Twitter on December 19 that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria. McGurk’s column and television appearance signal that he will become a leading public critic of Trump and a likely source of testimony as the US Congress launches hearings into Trump’s policy in Syria and throughout the Middle East.

In his Washington Post column, McGurk said Pompeo told him on December 17 about the “sudden change” in US policy, which grew out of a conversation Trump had with Erdogan.

“The president’s decision to leave Syria was made without deliberation, consultation with allies or Congress, assessment of risk, or appreciation of facts,” McGurk wrote.