Departing US envoy Brett McGurk’s legacy in Iraq and Syria

The top official in the coalition against ISIS is praised by some and hated by others

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Outgoing US special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS Brett McGurk has been the guardian of US foreign policy in Iraq and Syria for years, earning him hard-earned esteem from partners in the region as well as rampant criticism from rivals, who rejoiced at the news of his accelerated resignation from his post.

Mr McGurk – widely viewed in Washington as the architect of the US-led coalition against ISIS and described by colleagues as the government’s ‘historical memory’ on Iraq – has resigned in protest of US President Donald Trump's decision to abruptly withdraw American  troops from Syria last week.

The veteran envoy, who had already planned to leave by mid-February to take up a post at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, will now step down on December 31 – a move that Mr Trump has described as “grandstanding”.

He leaves behind a divisive legacy in the two countries that have been hardest hit by the rise of ISIS since 2014 and the ensuing campaign to wipe-out the militant group.

His biggest fans are ostensibly Syria’s Kurdish groups, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG­), whom he helped refashion into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a YPG-led coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters established in 2015 to help the US battle ISIS on the ground in Syria.

The SDF now controls around a quarter of the country, much of it captured from ISIS with US military help.

“The Syrian Kurds see Mr McGurk as this person who created this broad alliance between the Syrian Kurds and the US,” Wladimir van Wilgenburg, Kurdish affairs expert, told The National.

“In his role, he enabled them to capture a lot of territory,” he continued. Those areas included the majority Arab Raqqa, ISIS’s former headquarters in Syria, and parts of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesperson for the SDF also credits Mr McGurk with playing a leading role in developing state-like structures that oversee the administration of territory liberated from ISIS.

“He helped develop local councils in Raqqa, Tal Abyad, Al Tabqa, and Manbij,” Mr Bali said.

He also doused tensions between Sunni tribesmen and Kurdish groups in majority-Arab areas that have fallen under Kurdish control, such as Raqqa and Tal Abyad, the SDF spokesman told The National, adding that the US envoy played a very “positive role” in maintaining peace between the different ethnic and religious components of these regions.

His support for Syria’s Kurds drew widespread criticism from Turkey, which considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish militia that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 and has claimed responsibility for several terror attacks on Turkish soil in recent years.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last year that he wanted Mr McGurk removed. "McGurk is clearly giving support to the PKK and YPG. It would be beneficial if this person were to be replaced," he said.


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In Iraq, Mr McGurk has left a much larger footprint than in Syria.

He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran under the Obama administration. He also worked as a lawyer for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion and joined former US President George W Bush’s National Security Council staff, where in 2007 and 2008 he was the lead US negotiator on security agreements with Iraq.

This track record makes Mr McGurk one of the most experienced foreign policy officials in the Trump administration on US military campaigns in Iraq.

However, for some Iraqi officials, he is among those who contributed to a widening influence of Iran-backed forces.

“Because he has been in government working the same file so long, he has the ability to overwhelm anyone who questions his actions or conclusions in interagency meetings,” says Feisal Al Istrabadi, Iraq's former ambassador to the UN and one of the principal legal drafters of the Iraqi interim constitution.

But Mr McGurk has contributed to flawed US policy decisions in Iraq, including early support for former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, the man who between 2006 and 2014 built a Shiite-controlled sectarian state that alienated Sunnis and Kurds, says Mr Al Istrabadi, who is also the founding director of the Indiana University Center for the Study of the Middle East.

Washington’s support for Mr Maliki before he was pressured to leave office created conditions conducive to the rise of the militant group, Mr Al Istrabadi said.

Both the US and Iran forced Mr Maliki to resign in 2014 for failing to stop ISIS fighters from sweeping across the country.

However, Mr Al Istrabadi balanced his criticism of Mr McGurk by saying that "he has worked tirelessly for years in Iraq against ISIS once the group arose in 2014, at a time when few others wanted to touch the issue."

Kurdish groups in Iraq are also critical of Mr McGurk, who played a key role in influencing Washington’s opposition to last year’s independence referendum. The Kurds have long sought a sovereign state next to Iraq, instead of a status of semi-autonomy.

An article published by Kurdistan24 media outlet, which is close to Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, said that Mr “McGurk was no friend of the Kurds”.

Hoshyar Zebari, a prominent Kurdish official who served as deputy prime minister, foreign minister and finance minister in the Iraqi government said on Twitter that the resignation, “finally is a wise and timely decision”.

Correction: It has come to the attention of The National that two statements in this article by Feisal Al Istrabadi are false. Al Istrabadi had told us that Mr McGurk had intervened to derail a constitutional process for parliament to withdraw confidence in Mr Maliki. Al Istrabadi also told us Mr McGurk convinced President Barack Obama to allow Mr Maliki to move ahead with the prosecution of top Sunni officials in 2011. We have learned that those statements are not true. Those comments have now been removed.