With U.S. policy on Syria in turmoil, will ISIS win?

McGurk’s role as anti-ISIS envoy came with some political baggage, particularly with regards to Iraq where he did not jell with the Trump administration’s view on the Iranian threat.

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run from ISIS gunmen in Raqqa, Syria, July 3, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/GORAN TOMASEVIC/FILE PHOTO)
Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run from ISIS gunmen in Raqqa, Syria, July 3, 2017.
Brett McGurk, the US anti-ISIS envoy who was key to building the 74 nation coalition against ISIS, resigned on Saturday, casting doubt on the coalition’s viability and effectiveness.
McGurk was appointed under the Obama administration in 2015 and was not only a key aspect to the creation of the largest military coalition in history, but also played a major role in the politics of the Middle East, meeting frequently with officials and local leaders in Syria, Iraq and the Gulf.
U.S. envoy in fight against ISIS resigns over Syria withdrawal, December 23, 2018 (Reuters)
According to reports, McGurk was shocked by US President Donald Trump’s decision on December 19 to withdraw from Syria and thus, after Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned, McGurk also decided it was time to exit.
He was supposed to leave in February 2019, but he pushed up the decision. “The recent decision by the president came as a shock and was a complete reversal of policy,” he wrote in an email reported by the Associated Press. It leaves US coalition partners confused and bewildered, he noted.
McGurk took pride in the work the anti-ISIS coalition had accomplished, particularly in Syria. His pinned Tweet shows him visiting coalition-supported projects in Raqqa, including schools that he says helped “thousands of children traumatized by ISIS.”
He had recently welcomed a $57 million contribution from the EU that was going to help Mosul recovery projects. Much of the work McGurk concentrated on in the last year, since the coalition liberated the ISIS capital in Raqqa, was “stabilization” – working to invest in local communities in order to prevent ISIS from returning. On December 12 he welcomed support from Denmark for stabilization programs.
McGurk was an Iraq policy expert who had served as the White House senior director for Iraq issues in 2008 and had dealt with issues then that would later plague Iraq during the war against ISIS. For instance, during his time in the White House, he was aware of the Iranian encroachment in Iraq and its attempts to confront the US; he knew Adil Abdul Mahdi, the current Iraqi prime minister, when he was still vice president; and he dealt with the Kurdish region and was aware of Turkey’s concerns, as well as Syria’s role, in allowing jihadists to transit into Iraq via the Euphrates valley.
McGurk comes across as taciturn in State Department cables from 2008 and 2009, rarely expressing an opinion but clearly abreast of the Iraqi political playing field. Many of these players have not changed 10 years later, whether it is the Kurdish political leadership in the north, or Iranian attempt to influence politics, or the lack of security along the Syrian border.
McGurk’s role as anti-ISIS envoy, therefore, came with some political baggage, particularly with regards to Iraq, where he did not jell with the Trump administration’s view on the Iranian threat. However, McGurk did play a key role in 2017 of reviving Iraq-Saudi Arabia relations. This was important to the Trump administration which was working closely with the Saudis.
The anti-ISIS envoy was passionate about his work, particularly by continuing to remember the ISIS genocide of the Yazidis in 2014, which had compelled Obama to act. The Obama administration had left Iraq in 2011 and McGurk had played a role in that, hoping Iraq’s future would be stable. Instead, Iraq was ripped apart by an ISIS offensive in the summer of 2014 that destroyed Iraqi army divisions, captured around 2,000 vehicles – most of them supplied by the US to Iraq – and captured a third of Iraq.
McGurk said in early December that the US would remain committed to the victims of ISIS genocide and crimes against humanity. He praised Trump for signing into law the Iraq and Genocide Relief and Accountability Act and he praised the US for being able to lead a coalition that defeated ISIS on the battlefield. McGurk pointed out that in 2014 ISIS had controlled territory the size of the United Kingdom and ruled over eight million people. It even was making revenues of $1 billion a year, according to US reports. “Today ISIS is down to its final town in Syria and Iraq,” he wrote then.
For Trump the ISIS campaign was a success. The group was “largely defeated,” he tweeted on Saturday, “We’re coming home.”
Trump claimed not to know McGurk after he resigned. He noted that he was appointed by Obama in 2015 and “was supposed to leave in February but he just resigned prior to leaving. Grandstander? The Fake News is making such a big deal about this nothing event.”
McGurk’s leaving will likely spook US coalition partners, who are already concerned about the abrupt change in US policy and by the Mattis departure.
Mattis said he would stay on until February to smooth the transition and also because US troops should be out of Syria by then. But US coalition partners, such as the UK and France who both have troops in eastern Syria, are left with holding the line now and they don’t know what to do.
Paris has hosted a delegation from eastern Syria to discuss their next move, according to reports. The UK, dealing with the Brexit crisis, will be faced with tough choices.
The rest of the coalition, even though it contains 74 countries and several international groupings, has focused primarily on Iraq. In fact the coalition, despite its anti-ISIS posture, is not really involved in fighting ISIS globally. There are no coalition troops, for instance, helping Egypt in Sinai confront ISIS.
But US leadership was the glue that held this massive group of countries together.
Trump wants these countries to do more and doesn’t think the US should be a global policeman. However, the US was the country that led the efforts to create this coalition. If Trump didn’t know who McGurk was and hadn’t met with him, that indicates a wider policy issue in Washington of not being committed to the coalition or the key leaders of it. McGurk would have left anyway in February, but the question now is whether Trump will find a successor to him that shares Trump’s worldview, or whether the coalition will be left to wither.