US president-elect Joe Biden has named Brett McGurk as his White House co-ordinator for the Middle East, a seasoned hand who worked in the region under three former presidents and is known for his criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Biden transition team made the announcement on Friday, granting Mr McGurk a senior White House position as “co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa".
The 47-year-old diplomat is known to be a workaholic and determined policy driver. One person who worked with him in the past described him as a “bulldozer". He operates with a mission in mind and does everything to accomplish it.
Mr McGurk is no stranger to the Middle East, and he is perhaps one of the very few Washington political figures who have served in the Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies. Under George W Bush, Mr McGurk was the director for Iraq on the National Security Council (2005-2007) and then the special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East affairs on the National Security Council (2007-2009). Under Barack Obama, he served as deputy assistant secretary for Near East Affairs at the State Department (2012-2015), where he worked directly with Mr Biden, then the vice president.
Mr McGurk then became the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in 2015, a position he maintained under Mr Trump until the end of 2018, when he resigned. Since then, he has been teaching at Stanford University, and became a trusted voice on the Biden campaign during the presidential race.
A campaign insider told The National that Mr McGurk briefed Mr Biden three times on Syria during the race and then into the transition. His policy views converge with those of Mr Biden, having resigned from the Trump administration after the outgoing president's call with Mr Erdogan that authorised the partial withdrawal of US troops from Syria and allowed Turkey into the northern part of the country. The decision was criticised by Mr Biden as one that gave ISIS "a new lease on life".
Randa Slim, a Middle East expert and director of Track II dialogue at the Middle East Institute, labelled Mr McGurk as an “irritant” for Ankara.
"His appointment is seen in Ankara as another irritant in an already complicated and increasingly conflictual US-Turkey relationship," Ms Slim told The National.
Mr McGurk makes no secret of his objections to Ankara’s policies, from expansion in Syria to cosying up to Russia and appeasing Hamas.
One US source familiar with his thinking said he sees Mr Erdogan as a policy hurdle. “Turkey got in the way of his mission to kill ISIS quickly,” the source said. “His first priority will be to get on the same page with the allies in the region.”
But this may prove difficult because of his regional detractors, explains Ms Slim. “Many officials and experts in the Middle East view Mr McGurk’s record in the US government through the lenses of US policies in Iraq and Syria which he advocated, policies which have not advanced the well-being of the peoples there.”
Ms Slim mentioned Mr McGurk’s support during the Bush administration and later under the Obama administration for former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. “Mr Al Maliki’s sectarian policies in Iraq played a major role in laying the groundwork for the rise of ISIS in Iraq,” Ms Slim argued.
It was under Mr Al Maliki that Iran-funded Iraqi militias were able to run amok in the country, and ISIS took over Mosul in 2014.
Mr McGurk's relationship with Mr Al Maliki, however, had its ups and downs. According to The Wall Street Journal, the senior US official played a lead role in the Obama administration's 2010 efforts to back Mr Al Maliki's bid for a second term but then facilitated his ouster in 2014. "The relationship soured and Mr McGurk became one of the officials to drive [Mr Al] Maliki out as ISIS took over Mosul," the Journal reported.
In Syria, Mr McGurk's mission was focused on defeating ISIS and backing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). He also supported a transitional government structure in the north-east, a move that complicated the political roadmap for a final settlement in the area, said Ms Slim. “While appreciated by Syrian Kurdish leaders, the transitional governance structure has complicated rather than facilitated the cause of conflict management in the country."
But others such as Nick Heras, the director of government relations at the Institute for the Study of War, see Mr McGurk's decisions as part of executing a mission which was then to defeat ISIS. "He has a remarkable capability to stay on mission and pursue the goals set out by the White House, even when confronted by multiple regional crises," Mr Heras told The National. He described him as someone who has no tolerance for nonsense and "a driven leader who his team loves to work for and his opponents begrudgingly respect".
Mr McGurk's mission at the White House will be weaving back a regional multilateral coalition, Mr Heras said. “President-elect Biden likely turned to him because of his intimate familiarity with building multilateral co-operation to address security issues emanating from the region.”
The expert mentioned Mr McGurk's ability of “keeping diverse regional actors on the same side to address mutual security challenges in a context of regional rivalry and conflict”. On Turkey, this would involve efforts to bring Ankara back under the Nato tent.
While Ms Slim hopes that Mr McGurk “has had time since he left office to draw the right lessons from past mistakes”, Mr Heras expects a return to a pragmatic, coalition-driven approach through his appointment.
Mr Biden will take office on January 20.