US envoy in fight against ISIS quits after Syria pullout

VIDEO: REUTERS
McGurk addressing the 14th International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue in October 2018.
McGurk addressing the 14th International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue in October 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A top US envoy leading a global coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has quit over President Donald Trump’s decision this week to pull US troops out of Syria, a source familiar with the matter said on Saturday (Dec 22).

Brett McGurk, US special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat the militant group, submitted his resignation effective Dec 31 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday, a State Department official said.

In an abrupt policy shift, Trump announced on Wednesday that Washington would withdraw the roughly 2,000 US troops in Syria, upending a pillar of American policy in the Middle East and alarming US allies.

The decision was followed on Thursday by the surprise departure of US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, who in a resignation letter to Trump laid bare the growing divide between the two over foreign policy.

McGurk, who was slated to leave his post in February 2019, objected to Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, a person familiar with the matter said, and added that Mattis’departure had a “significant impact” on McGurk’s resignation.

A senior administration official referred to McGurk as “an architect of Obama’s failed Iran deal,” adding the envoy was already scheduled to leave his post next year. Trump earlier this year abandoned a 2015 landmark deal former President Barack Obama reached with Iran to curb its nuclear programme.

McGurk was appointed by Obama in 2015 and has been instrumental in shaping Washington’s policy in northern Syria, particularly its backing of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militia that have been fighting ISIS with US support for three years.

 
 
 

The US allied forces have won significant victories against the Sunni militant group in northern Syria, retaking key cities such as Raqqa, once deemed the capital of its self-declared caliphate. But McGurk, along with other US government agencies, believed the fight against the militant group was hardly over.

“It would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now,” McGurk told reporters in a Dec 11 briefing at the State Department. 

“Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished.”

By contrast, Trump has claimed victory against ISIS and considers the mission in Syria over given the group’s territorial losses.

“Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday.

Trump’s declaration of triumph has alarmed key Nato allies such as France and Germany, who said change of course on Syria risks damaging the fight against ISIS, which has now been squeezed to a sliver of Syrian territory.

US officials have warned that taking back the group’s territory would not be the same as defeating it.