US envoy to coalition fighting ISIS quits over troop pullout from Syria

VIDEO: REUTERS
Mr Brett McGurk decided to leave early after President Donald Trump abruptly ordered the withdrawal of US troops in Syria.
Mr Brett McGurk decided to leave early after President Donald Trump abruptly ordered the withdrawal of US troops in Syria.

WASHINGTON • Mr Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has accelerated his resignation, telling colleagues at the weekend that he could not in good conscience carry out President Donald Trump's newly declared policy of withdrawing US troops from Syria.

Mr McGurk, a seasoned diplomat who was considered by many to be the glue holding together the sprawling international coalition fighting the terrorist group, was supposed to retire in February.

But according to an e-mail he sent to his staff, he decided to move his departure forward to Dec 31 after Mr Trump did not heed his own commanders and blindsided US allies in the region by abruptly ordering the withdrawal of the 2,000 troops.

His decision comes right after the departure of Secretary of Defence James Mattis, whose own resignation letter was seen as a rebuke of the President's actions in the region.

"The recent decision by the President came as a shock and was a complete reversal of policy that was articulated to us," Mr McGurk said in the e-mail. "It left our coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered," he added.

"I worked this week to help manage some of the fallout but - as many of you heard in my meetings and phone calls - I ultimately concluded that I could not carry out these new instructions and maintain my integrity."

With more than a decade of experience in Iraq spanning three administrations, Mr McGurk helped stitch together the 79-member coalition led by the US, which oversaw the battle to take back cities from the terrorist group. He became special envoy in late 2015 during the Obama administration.

In a shift from the way the insurgency had been fought during the Bush administration, one of the Obama administration's core doctrines was that US allies in the region needed to take the lead in recapturing territory, with US forces providing only air support and limited logistical assistance.

 
 

This meant that the ground war to take back key cities captured by the ISIS, like Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, took years to mount.

And it came down to the 45-year-old Mr McGurk to negotiate alliances and broker military aid to the mosaic of armed groups and governments vying for control of the region.

At its height, ISIS controlled an area the size of Britain with a population estimated at 12 million people. Under Mr McGurk's guidance, the coalition succeeded in taking roughly half of the territory in the group's self-declared caliphate by the time Mr Trump took office early last year.

By the end of this year, ISIS had lost all but 1 per cent of the land it once held in Iraq and Syria, leading the White House to proclaim that the group had been defeated, even though it is still estimated to have some 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in the region.

On Saturday evening, Mr Trump wrote on Twitter that anyone else "would be the most popular hero in America" for announcing the withdrawal of troops from Syria after "decimating ISIS".

He added that he did not know Mr McGurk and questioned the timing of his resignation.

"Grandstander?" the President wrote. "The Fake News is making such a big deal about this nothing event!"

Mr Trump had declared the defeat of the ISIS in a tweet earlier this past week.

Only days before, Mr McGurk had stood in front of reporters at a State Department briefing and promised that America was in the fight for the long haul.

"Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign," he said.

"I think it is fair to say that Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that defeat is enduring."

The US President's order to begin drawing down troops placed the envoy in the uncomfortable position of having to tell America's Kurdish allies that the US was reneging on its earlier commitment.

"Brett is one of our longest-serving and most effective officials dealing with the region," said General John Allen, Mr McGurk's predecessor.

"His departure, following that of Jim Mattis and others, will leave us less safe at a moment when this President seems unwilling to take, or unable to understand, the 'best advice' of his leaders."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2018, with the headline 'US envoy to coalition fighting ISIS quits over troop pullout from Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe