The Former U.S. ISIS Envoy on Trump and the Crisis in Syria
Five years ago, President Obama appointed Brett McGurk as his special envoy to counter ISIS. The Obama Administration had sent a limited number of troops to Syria; McGurk’s job was focussed on destroying ISIS strongholds and supporting the Kurds in northern Syria, who had taken up much of the anti-ISIS fighting. Last December, McGurk and the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, abruptly resigned after President Trump threatened to pull American troops out of Syria. “The President’s decision to leave Syria was made without deliberation, consultation with allies or Congress, assessment of risk, or appreciation of facts,” McGurk wrote in the Washington Post, in January. He warned that Trump’s choices “are already giving the Islamic State—and other American adversaries—new life.”
Less than a year later, with some American troops already departed, President Trump essentially gave a green light to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to launch a military operation in the region. As more U.S. forces evacuated, Turkish troops entered Syria, caused an unknown number of Kurdish deaths, and left the fight against ISIS in limbo. (It is unclear what has happened or will happen to thousands of ISIS detainees that were being held by Kurdish forces; there have been reports that such prisoners have escaped.) Trump has ricocheted between spouting harsh words at Erdoğan for ordering the incursion he facilitated and praising him for the same, welcoming a further Russian intervention in the region, and criticizing the Kurds. (“Sometimes you have to let them fight,” he said, of the Turks and Kurds. “It’s like two kids in a lot, you got to let them fight and then you pull them apart.”) Last Wednesday, the Vice-President, Mike Pence, went to Turkey to meet with Erdoğan. He negotiated a temporary ceasefire, which Turkey appears to have already violated. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has repeatedly lobbied the President on issues of importance to Erdoğan’s government, raising questions about why Trump made a decision that pleased Erdogan but has enraged even his staunchest congressional allies, including the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, and Senator Lindsey Graham.
I recently spoke by phone with McGurk, who is currently a lecturer at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his feelings toward President Trump, President Erdoğan’s real agenda for the region, and how we arrived at the current calamity.
What did your job consist of?
I was the coördinator of what we call the global coalition of about eighty countries around the world, to not only defeat the physical ISIS caliphate but also to share information, to protect our collective homelands to make it much harder for terrorist fighters to launch attacks like we have seen in the streets of Brussels and Paris and elsewhere throughout Europe. And also to coördinate the overall diplomatic and military effort on the ground in Iraq and Syria and throughout the region as we prosecuted the campaign.
How much time did you spend with Kurdish populations in Syria?
I probably travelled to Syria every couple months or so, sometimes more. Obviously, in the beginning, there wasn’t much territory; most of it was the caliphate. But beginning in late 2015 or so, I would go in with our military forces every couple of months, because I have learned throughout the years that unless you have an eyes-on assessment of the situation, it is really hard to provide the right analysis and options to the United States government.
Can you describe the importance of the Kurds to your job?
In the fall of 2014, I was the Deputy Secretary of State for Iraq and also the deputy Presidential envoy on the ISIS campaign, so I could also help conceive and develop that campaign. And the decision was made very early that we would not use U.S. military combat forces to do the main fighting to take back the ISIS caliphate because that would be costly, that would not be sustainable, and there was not that much support for that. So what we would do instead was rely heavily on U.S. Special Forces to advise and enable local forces.
In Iraq, we are working with a recognized government that allows us to harness all of the capabilities of the United Nations and everything else for humanitarian assistance. In Syria, we are not working with a government, and in many ways we are working against that government. So we needed a ground force if we wanted to cleave back the caliphate and these territories. And we invested significant amounts of time, significant American resources, to build a force that was known as the Free Syrian Army, which was the umbrella of the opposition forces fighting Assad. And we spent an awful amount of time on that effort, and it proved to be extremely difficult, because many of those forces were “marbled” with extremist actors that we could not work with, or that our Special Forces could not work with in a manner that would guarantee their safety. But we continued that effort for some time, and working with Turkey as well.
In the late fall of 2015, the town of Kobani, which is a town in Syria just south of the Turkish border, east of the Euphrates river, was kind of the last holdout. The whole map at that time was pretty much black—it was controlled by ISIS. This town was holding out with only a few hundred fighters surrounded by thousands of ISIS terrorists. It looked completely hopeless. Because of our relationships that had been built for many years, including my own relationships with the Kurds in Northern Iraq, they let us know they were in touch with Kurdish fighters in Kobani, and asked if there was anything we could do to help. It was a pretty desperate situation. What they told us that they needed was a massive airdrop of weapons and ammunition, so they could hold up a massive ISIS onslaught. We thought the town was going to fall in a matter of days. And then they would need some air support.
General John Allen was the Presidential envoy, and I was the deputy Presidential envoy, and we went to Ankara after meeting with President Obama and others. And we discussed with the most senior levels of the Turkish government the fact that we thought it was very important to save Kobani from ISIS. At the time, ISIS controlled the Turkish border. And where ISIS controlled the border, unfortunately, the border points were largely open. ISIS was travelling fairly freely across the Turkish border. This was a significant issue between us and the Turks. We told the Turks that we wanted to help these fighters in Kobani, and worked it though with them. The fighters in Kobani were known as the Y.P.G., and, while Turkey didn’t necessarily like them, they were also working with them and had decent relations with them. The larger conflict between the P.K.K. [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and Turkey was in a dormant phase, and we negotiated with the Turks to actually supply the entire Kobani battle through southeast Turkey, and we brought the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga into Kobani through Turkey. So while there was tension was Turkey, it was actually very manageable. The Kobani battle lasted four or five months, and was really the main turning point in the ISIS campaign. They thought they were going to take the town, and they threw thousands of fighters into the streets of Kobani, and once we were able to develop the connective tissue with the fighters on the ground and with our Special Forces who were in Northern Iraq, we were able to turn to tide. And that’s how we were first introduced to the Syrian Kurds.
How did this lead to more recent developments?
After Kobani finished, it was a major turning point, but ISIS had massive resources, and what really fuelled the ISIS war machine were the foreign terrorist fighters—forty thousand of whom came from a hundred and ten countries all around the world, pouring into Syria. These were the frontline suicide bombers, and they had the most devastating impact on the battlefield and on civilian populations. So we had to shut this flow of supplies and men and material into Syria.
After Kobani, we worked very hard on Tal Abyad, which was just east of Kobani and controlled by ISIS, and the Turkish border was open. We worked with the Turks and we offered them massive assistance on border security if they could seal the border from their side, and, frankly, they took no action. That was quite frustrating. We were also involved in negotiations about flying off of a Turkish airbase in which we have been stationed for many decades. Turkey would not permit us to do so to hit ISIS. So the picture that developed while General Allen and I were spending most of these months in Ankara is that something was not on the level.
The commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces [which is a collection of groups including the Y.P.G.], General Mazloum Kobani, who the Turks now consider the world’s No. 1 terrorist, has been one of our closest advisers here in prosecuting the ISIS campaign. But in March of 2015, the Turks worked with him directly on a Turkish military operation in Syria to exhume the tomb of the grandfather of the Ottoman Empire. So, after Kobani was a little secure, they worked directly with the Y.P.G. to send Turkish military forces in, so there was a fairly constructive relationship there. The big news at the time was that Turkey was going to have an election in June of 2015 for a new parliament, and Erdoğan hoped to have a super-majority because he wanted to amend the Turkish constitution to make it a presidential system. What happens is that the Kurdish Turkish party did much better than anticipated, and blocked his super-majority. But when that happened, and we are still negotiating to fly off the airbase, he called for a redo of the election, and changed his own political coalition, and joined forces with an ultra-nationalist Turkish Party, and declared war on the P.K.K. again, and that included him declaring war on the Y.P.G. So that got more complicated. But that just shows that a lot of this is the domestic political calculations of Erdoğan, which I am not sure that President Trump fully appreciates.
We had some Special Forces on the ground, and we organized a special coalition of Kurds and Arabs to take and seize Tal Abyad, and they did so in the summer of 2015. It was a significant blow to ISIS. And Turkey did not like that. When Tal Abyad was controlled by ISIS, the border was open; when it was taken by the S.D.F., Turkey sealed the border and built a wall. That was pretty telling. Now they are attacking Tal Abyad with the Syrian National Army, which is really the Syrian opposition, and if we care about ISIS this is a serious problem.
Did you have any interactions with President Erdoğan?
Oh, yeah. I met with him a number of times. The first time I met him was in 2007, with Condi Rice.
What was your sense of him? Do you think, like a lot of people, that he has changed a lot over the past dozen years?
When I first met him, with Rice, was when Turkey was massing its forces in Northern Iraq to invade Iraqi Kurdistan. We were in the middle of the surge and thought that would be a really bad idea. So we talked through it with him, and he actually chose not to do that, but then some months later he did. He can be pragmatic. After that meeting, I was on my way to meet Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Iraqi Kurds, and we mentioned that to Erdoğan and he basically said he’s a terrorist, and why do you work with that terrorist? I mentioned that to Barzani and said, “You have a real problem with the Turks here. They are massing their forces and might cross the border.” Barzani said, “You tell Erdoğan that if one Turkish soldier crosses that border, a thousand Kurds will rise up to cut his throat.” A couple years later, thanks to their own initiatives and also some creative U.S. diplomacy, Erdoğan and Barzani became extremely close, and began to trade economically. It just showed that these types of issues are never static, and, with the good offices of the United States of America, if we are playing a leadership role, we can actually have a real impact.
In more recent years, it is fairly clear to me that Erdoğan has ambitions, because he feels that the borders of Turkey were unfairly drawn after the First World War. If you look at what he is doing in Syria and in Northern Iraq, where he has set up military bases just north of Mosul without anyone’s permission, this is part of an over-all concept to basically expand Turkish sovereign territory.
So you view this as more about redrawing borders and resentment over the settlement of the First World War than about a fear by Erdoğan of his own Kurdish populations and foreign Kurdish populations?
It’s a mix, but Erdoğan sees a zone, from Aleppo to Mosul, as his national-security zone, and he wants freedom of maneuver and action in that zone, and Turkish forces in that zone. And so, if you look at the map he showed to the U.N. General Assembly, it is basically extending the Turkish border into Syria. That’s his map. That happens to include all the Kurdish areas of Syria, all the Christian areas of Syria, and he wants to repopulate that area. The question is who will hold that area. This is why everything happening in Syria has broader consequences. One reason the Arab League has come out so strongly against what Erdoğan is doing—and they kicked Assad out of the Arab League—is that they recognize Erdoğan’s ambitions as a significant threat to the interest of many countries in the region. This isn’t just about the Turkish border.
How did the policy change as we moved into the Trump Administration?
What started to happen, beginning really late last summer, was that President Trump made clear he did not want to put any more resources into Syria. I went to Raqqa right after the battle was over, a few days after my daughter was born. There were still bodies in the streets. It was kind of an apocalyptic scene, and the population that had been displaced was itching to return. But, even though President Trump authorized the Raqaa operation—he was the one that made the decision to arm the Y.P.G., Obama didn’t do that—Trump made clear that, after the battle was over, we could not spend a single dime on any post-conflict activities. And all we wanted to do—we weren’t there to rebuild cities—were basic humanitarian necessities. Water. The basic necessities of life. We were prepared to put in two hundred million dollars. That then is the springboard to significant coalition contributions. They know that, if U.S. money is going in, we will help manage it, and it is a safe bet for them to put their funds in. President Trump cut all that money and said, “You are not spending anything.”
And that was a signal that there was very little we could actually hope to do in Syria long-term. And yet the policy that was announced by the administration was extremely ambitious on Syria: we are also going to stay until the defeat of ISIS, and we are also going to stay until all Iranians leave Syria. That is going to take forever. We announced that we had these grand objectives and were going to stay until they were met. Whether I agreed with those or not, we went to the coalition and said, “We still have a little ways to go in the ISIS caliphate, and we can’t just leave when that is done, and we need your commitments.” And there was almost unanimity among the coalition. And that was when Trump said, “Everyone, get out of Syria.” When he did that, the calculations of all the actors changed.
So how do you understand what happened recently?
So then I am gone. After that, Trump is convinced to not pull everybody out, but there was a significant reduction of an already small U.S. force, by fifty percent or so. That even further reduced our ability to manage a very complex environment. U.S. diplomats were trying to work with Turkey on a security mechanism to ensure there were no threats across the border to Turkey. And we have worked on the border to make sure no weapons or fighters crossed that border, and I think we can demonstrate that there were no threats to Turkey across the border. U.S. diplomats were working on something called a security mechanism by which the S.P.F. fighters would pull back, they would destroy their defensive obstacles, we would do joint patrolling with Turkey, all on the promise and expectations that Turkey would not invade. And this was working, as I understand it, and approved at the highest levels of the Turkish government but for Erdoğan. That’s what Turkey does. That’s how they negotiate. Erdoğan then creates a crisis and calls Trump, and President Trump, as I would have sadly predicted, did not back up what our diplomats and military personnel are doing, but quite the opposite—he said he would get out.
Do you have any idea why he would do that?
He doesn’t want to be there. He does not want to be in Syria. He is very clear and consistent on this.
I don’t disagree with that, but in the same week where he is saying we will send more troops than Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to avoid the idea that it could be something more mundane or mercenary than that. I am not trying to promulgate conspiracy theories, but looking at this in terms of geopolitics or some ideology he has might be over-interpreting it.
You mean his relationship with Erdoğan, or that sort of thing?
I have no idea. But to put anything beyond the realm of possibility is naïve, right?
I can’t speak to that. I never saw anything like that. I do know he doesn’t want to be in Syria. So, if a leader calls him up and says he will deal with it, the President, being totally unprepared for these phone calls, kind of rolls over.
Can you describe what it is like to be a diplomat and have work you have done undermined or trashed for a reason you don’t know, with no process?
I led the channel with the Russians on Syria, which was a very difficult negotiation process, and very firm, in which we would say to the Russians, “Here is where we are, and if your forces or forces affiliated with you cross this line, we are going to kill you.” We want to make sure we have a clear separation of forces to reduce risk. This is about as serious a diplomatic initiative as you can get, and that is what the conversation is like. I did that under Obama, and I did that at least until the final months when I left. When Trump came in, as months go by, my ability as a diplomat to speak for the United States of America significantly begins to diminish because the counterparts across the table from me know that Trump could tweet something in a moment, or their leader could call Trump, and who knows what is going to happen? That is the case for any diplomat. And that is how the Ukraine story fits into the chaos of the Syria policy. Everything that diplomats and personnel are doing can be upended by a phone call or a tweet from Trump.
Have you spoken to General Mattis lately?
Yeah, he is a colleague of mine here at Stanford. He is guest-lecturing at my class here in a couple weeks.
Why do you think he hasn’t spoken out more?
He is one of my—I have just tremendous respect for him. I think he spoke in the letter in which he resigned, and if he wants to say more, it is up to him.
Surely it is “up” to him. But, given what’s going on, do you think the relative quiet of people like him and H. R. McMaster, the former national-security adviser, is problematic?
I think everybody makes their own calculations. I came out very hard on Sunday, October 6th, when I saw that statement from the White House that was basically a greenlight for Turkey to cross the border. My own calculation, and why I came out so strongly, was extreme concern that if this happened, it would lead to a cascading chain reaction with Americans, many of whom I know, on the ground in harm’s way.
You have been talking for forty minutes about this complex history and diplomacy. Now we are in a situation where the President may not even have a concept of the national interest, and I wonder whether the reticence of a lot of people is right for the moment.
Obviously, I have made my decision to say what I think. You see what Admiral [William] McRaven has been saying. No one would call him a deep state operative. He is an American hero. He is the guy who killed bin Laden. Look at what Mitt Romney is saying. But that said, everyone makes their own calculations, and I wouldn’t want to speak for anyone else, especially people with whom I served.
To what degree was this only possible because of flawed American policy in Iraq and Syria going back to 2003?
Let me answer it two ways. First: the mission in Syria was designed specifically to address legitimate concerns by the American people and Congress not to be over-invested in these conflicts. That’s why it was light. We are not fighting. We have taken five casualties in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces have lost eleven thousand people. So if we can’t do this—holding intact what used to be the ISIS caliphate—it does beg the question of how we operate around the world. So I think there are profound implications for this shambolic evacuation of Syria, given that it was a very successful mission and was extremely light and sustainable.
The larger meta-question gets to the basic alignment of ends, ways, and means of American foreign policy. And this goes beyond Trump. I have great affection for President Bush. I was in his White House for four years, and he wrote in his book that invading Iraq with a hundred and thirty thousand American troops on a set of assumptions that everything would go O.K. was not a wise strategic decision. You compare the first Gulf War, in which we had four hundred and fifty thousand American troops and more coalition partners for a much more limited objective. The ends, ways, and means are completely out of balance. When President Obama announces that Assad must go in 2011, that sets an American declared objective without any serious thinking about how that objective is achieved. I think that increases risks for the country. So, looking forward, the question is how we bring our foreign policy back into balance. How do we align our commitments and objectives with our power and resources? And power also includes the willingness of the American people to undertake these endeavors.
I was just in the region as the Americans are withdrawing from their facilities and handing them to the Russians, as Putin is doing a state visit across the Middle East. This is the type of event General Petraeus, a friend of mine who was actually in the Middle East with me, would call a non-biodegradable event. It will be etched in people’s minds. Both our allies, about our reliability and dependability, and our enemies, about the fact that they can force us out or change our policies on a whim.
General Petraeus should say that.
And I think there are big implications for the future of foreign policy and the alignment of ends, ways, and means.
A couple days ago, Trump said in the Oval Office that this was “not our problem,” and added, “they’ve got a lot of sand over there, so there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.” Do you have anything you would like to say about that?
Well, you know, he is the Commander-in-Chief, and he has Americans wearing the sacred cloth of our nation, in Syria, on his order. And so to speak so cavalierly is really a dereliction of duty for a Commander-in-Chief. It also shows a total lack of understanding of the situation. This is the ISIS caliphate. This is where the threats emerged, and this is where they can reëmerge. There are still tens of thousands of prisoners, and he has no idea what will happen to these people. He keeps saying they will be taken over by Turkish forces, but the camps are hundreds of miles away from even where the Turks say they are going to go. To speak with such a cavalier nature about this just reflects a lack of understanding for the situation, and a lack of care for the personnel there under his command.
Do you have any Kurdish friends on the ground? And how are they?
Of course. [Long pause.] Just the suddenness of the decision, and the fact they had been reassured by U.S. officials, after I resigned but before Trump decided to leave some forces there, that there wouldn’t be any sort of sudden shift. They were really left out to dry, and so they are now trying to establish relationships with the Assad regime and the Russians, because that is really the only place they can go. It is a very tragic situation.