Architect of dissidence in Iraq leads US' talks with Russia

Brett McGurk discusses terms of cooperation between US, Russia, takes leading role in US' overseas diplomacy

Selen Temizer, Mehmet Alaca   | 02.10.2021
Architect of dissidence in Iraq leads US' talks with Russia


An official from the US National Security Council stands out as the negotiator of deals between the US and Russia in Syria.

A short time after Joe Biden took control of the White House, Brett McGurk was appointed special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, during former President Barrack Obama’s administration as National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.

After five years in Iraq during the rise of ethnic and sectarian chaos and the process leading to the creation of the ISIL terror organization, also known as Daesh or ISIS, McGurk conducted policies that prioritized the terror organization YPG/PKK in Syria.

As an attorney, his career took a turn to diplomacy and he mentored US Envoy to Baghdad John Negroponte in writing the Iraqi Constitution in 2004.

From 2004 to 2009, when McGurk served in Iraq, those years corresponded to the reconstruction of Iraq. He was the main actor weaving the building blocks of the current chaos in Iraq.

The architect of ethnic and sectarian dissidence in Iraq

Shia leader Nouri al-Maliki's eight years of authoritarian and sectarian rule started in 2006. He signaled he would reinforce the leading role of Shiite groups in Iraqi politics and exclude Sunnis. Meanwhile, violence escalated and bomb attacks were carried out one after another.

The policy of McGurk's team, which prioritized Kurds and Shias, led to domestic dynamics such as the escalation of resistance, inability to provide stability, and the increase in fragmentation in Iraq; as well as foreign dynamics including close relations between the Tehran administration and Shia rule and increasing the sensitivity of a Kurdish state in neighboring countries.

In February 2007, Gen. David Petraeus was appointed commander in Iraq and put a plan in place to stop the violence and terminate the militant Sunni Islamist terror group al-Qaeda. Consequently, Sunni groups gathered with the support from the US to fight al-Qaeda, thus Sunni authorities, who once fought the US and Shia rule, were involved in the political system and the terror organization was defeated.

But McGurk supported Maliki by arguing that the Shia leader was an Iraqi nationalist and the Iranian effect was exaggerated.

"To be sure, Iran retains great influence in Baghdad. But so do we," said McGurk in an interview to Washington Post on Nov. 3, 2011, that revealed his unbothered state with the Iranian influence. While the American bureaucrat claimed to have sufficiently fortified the Iraqi army, it handed Mosul to ISIL in June 2014 "without firing a single bullet."

He paved the way for the emergence of ISIL

With the support of McGurk’s team, Maliki gained authority from 2007 - 2014 and took the country back to the pre-Petraeus plan. With the Sunnis excluded, Iraq drifted into a state of political, economic and societal chaos. Bomb attacks and armed assaults in which some days as many as 200 people were killed, were carried out.

Meanwhile, the US ignored Turkey’s warnings regarding the exclusion of Sunnis. The room vacated by the exclusion of Sunnis from the political system created an opportunity for the emergence of ISIL.

ISIL came into sight as a group that gained power after the US occupation and pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda in 2004.

Gaining support from the excluded Sunnis, the advance of the terror group was contributed by tribes against Maliki’s rules and former ruling Ba’ath Party members.

His dreams of embassy came to end with leakage of his private life to press

When Obama took over from George Bush in January 2009, he wanted McGurk to continue as “the president’s senior adviser.”

Originally “Bush’s man,” when McGurk became special envoy to counter ISIL, he rapidly gained power and guided Obama in Iraqi and Syrian policies.

Not favored by the CIA, McGurk strengthened his career with the support from Central Command (CENTCOM).

Just when he was nominated for the ambassadorship to Baghdad in June 2012, the advance of McGurk’s career staggered when his relationship with an American journalist during his time in Baghdad was leaked to the press.

The US Congress did not approve of McGurk’s ambassadorship, yet the scandal that prevented him from becoming an ambassador did not cause him to fall from the president’s grace.

Thanks to his experience in Iraq, McGurk became an aide to Obama’s then-special envoy to combat Daesh John Allen in September 2014.

- His desire to apply the Iraqi model to Syria

The architect of the federal structure of Iraq, McGurk set to draw a fragmented map of Syria after the civil war by supporting the YPG/PKK terror group under the pretext of fighting ISIS in northern Syria.

When he was Gen. Allen’s aide, McGurk described Turkey as the most important partner against the ISIL threat. But one month before he took over the special representative’s office, he met Salih Muslim of the YPG/PKK in Erbil and mentioned the group’s role in the fight against ISIL for the first time.

In October 2015, he took over Allen’s duty and became the special envoy to counter ISIL and quickly turned his focus from Ankara to the YPG/PKK.

Despite Turkey’s insistence on fighting ISIL simultaneously in Iraq and Syria, McGurk focused on Iraq, paving the way for more support to the YPG/PKK under the pretext of fighting ISIL as it gathered in Syria.

Arguing that the Kurds should unite, McGurk always kept his distance from the Kurdish National Council (ENKS) formed by opposition Kurds, and did not object to the YPG/PKK suppressing the group.

He posed with ringleaders to cameras

McGurk paid several visits to the region in northern Syria occupied by the YPG/PKK during the first two years at his new post. Most of the visits were reported in the media.

The first visit took place on the first anniversary of YPG/PKK’s occupation of Kobane, Syria, liberated from ISIL, on Feb. 1, 2016.

After a photograph in which McGurk received a plaque from Polat Can, a spokesperson for YPG/PKK, was revealed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the Obama administration to “make a choice between the terrorist organization and a NATO ally.”

Nevertheless, at the end of August 2016, McGurk again visited the region under the control of the terror organization and reiterated his support.

Later, he criticized cross-border operations conducted by Turkish Armed Forces.

One day after Erdogan met with President Donald Trump in the US, McGurk visited YPG/PKK posts in the north of Raqqa on May 17, 2017, and posed for the cameras with ringleaders of the terror group, including Sahin Cilo, Aldar Khalil and Enver Muslim.

He came up with cover of Syrian Democratic Forces with CENTCOM

As part of McGurk’s legitimation project, the YPG/PKK terror organization gathered certain small groups under the name, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with arms and logistics support on Oct. 12, 2015.

From then, American authorities, chiefly McGurk, made statements that Washington supported the SDF in the fight against ISIL.

US Special Forces Commander Raymond Thomas on July 22 admitted that the YPG/PKK changed its “brand” on McGurk’s instructions.

Thomas said the name change was vital to getting the group legitimacy in talks about Syria’s future. “They wanted a seat at the table," Thomas said, "and because they had been branded as PKK they could never get to the table.” He added that McGurk “was able to keep them in the conversation” after the rebranding.

Outstanding Manbij game

The YPG/PKK terror group declared cantons one after another and accelerated preparations for federal Syria with autonomous structures with the support of McGurk.

After the YGP/PKK entered the Manbij district with the US’ help in August 2016, American authorities assured Turkey that the group would withdraw from the district.

After claiming that the organization left Manbij on several occasions, McGurk admitted its presence sometime later.

He did not hesitate to negotiate autonomous government plans with the Assad regime, either.

After the YPG/PKK’s occupation of Raqqa on Oct. 17, 2017, the media reported that McGurk visited the region the following day to talk to Ali Mamlouk, chief of intelligence of the Bashar al-Assad regime, about autonomous government plans.

He objected to withdrawal of US troops from Syria

McGurk took a backseat after Trump appointed former US Envoy to Ankara James Jeffrey as special representative to Syria.

The American diplomat resigned two months before his term came to an end on Dec. 19, 2018, right after the Trump administration decided to withdraw from Syria.

McGurk’s role in US-Russian talks

With the US focusing all its attention on China and giving signals of withdrawing from the Middle East, remarkable developments are taking place on the Washington-Moscow line.

After Biden took the presidency, one of the critical talks in which US-Russia relations were re-evaluated took place in Geneva in September with McGurk and Russian President Vladimir Putin's Special Envoy for Syria Aleksandr Lavrentiev.

The parties did not make a public statement concerning the agenda or the results of the meeting, but humanitarian issues are known to have constituted the focus of the agenda.

It is stated in diplomatic back channels that the American administration, whose interest in Syria has decreased, considers Russia’s distributing UN humanitarian aid to Syria through Damascus, and avoids putting pressure on the Moscow administration in military and political matters.

This increased expectation is that the US will leave more room for Russia in return for not breaking the status quo established with the YPG/PKK terror group in Syria.

Biden administration’s bureaucrats responsible for Syria have been in office since Obama’s term, such as McGurk, are known for their stance in favor of strengthening the Assad regime against opponents with radical tendencies.

Discussions on bases have been another indication of the new strategic rapprochement between the US and Russia.

The American media reported that Putin, during his meeting with Biden on June 16, discussed the proposal to host American soldiers on Russian bases.

On Sept. 21, Russian General of the Army Valery Gerasimov met his American counterpart Mark Milley to discuss details of the base issue in the Finnish capital of Helsinki.

The results of those talks have not been made public.

*Writing by Dilan Pamuk in Ankara​​​​​​​

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