Ankara nurses hatred for McGurk

Even now, after Brett McGurk resigned from his post as US envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, Turkish officials are still seething with complaints about the man.

al-monitor Brett McGurk, the United States' envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, listens to a translation during a news conference in Amman, Jordan, May 15, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.
Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman


Topics covered

Syria Conflict

Jan 3, 2019

Turkey has never made any secret of its hatred of Brett McGurk, the prominent former State Department official who resigned in protest last month over President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out US troops from northeastern Syria.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had publicly called on Washington to sack the man. A Turkish prosecutor weighed a criminal complaint calling for his arrest on terror charges. In private conversations lubricated with expensive Scotch, Turkish officials wished him an even darker fate. In Ankara’s eyes, McGurk was the main architect of the US-led coalition’s alliance with Turkey’s enemy, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), in the battle against the Islamic State.

It's a measure of just how deep the anger against McGurk burns that even after he stepped down, TRT International, the Turkish state broadcaster’s English-language propaganda channel, ripped into the Columbia-trained lawyer today. Was McGurk “the new Lawrence of Arabia?,” TRT asked in reference to the controversial British officer-cum-archaeologist and then spy who encouraged the Arabs to rise up against the Ottomans around the First World War. Recalling McGurk’s long years dealing primarily with Iraq starting with the US occupation in 2003, TRT contended that the Iraqi Constitution was "one of his creations” and that "many experts think” it had “divided the country along ethnic and sectarian lines” and “dragged the country back into the path of violence.” Not only that: The Kurds of Iraq had — gasp — “secured a legal status.”

It's an interesting accusation. Turkey is arguably among the biggest enablers of the Iraqi Kurds’ near independent status because it allows the Kurds to sell their oil through a purpose-built pipeline running from oil fields in Iraqi Kurdistan to loading terminals on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. Baghdad insists it is a breach of its sovereignty. Turkish leaders, most notably late President Turgut Ozal, have expressed interest in reclaiming parts of Mosul on the grounds that it was unlawfully wrested by the British from the Ottomans.

As for sectarianism, Turkey’s support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked Sunni Iraqis has prompted the same sort of accusation against Ankara. And while Turkey together with Iran led the chorus of protest against last year’s referendum on Kurdish independence, quite a few Iraqi Kurds blame McGurk for the debacle that ensued. McGurk vocally opposed the timing of the plebiscite if not its substance and pushed hard for its deferment. Some prominent Kurdish leaders argue that his efforts to keep former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in power came at their expense.

In Syria, the Kurds clearly share Turkey’s view that McGurk was their biggest friend.

The tidal wave of eulogies on Twitter following his announcement that he was stepping down attest to their affection and high regard. But the move to partner with the YPG was made by the Barack Obama administration, when interagency consultations were still the backbone of decision-making. McGurk certainly played an important role but without the president and the Pentagon’s support, the decision to arm and train the YPG could not have been made. He led the implementation on the ground, which made him the public face of a policy that he was not solely responsible for and the pitfalls of which he was well aware, a US official speaking on strict condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor. “The hard truth is that Turkey had months as that decision was being discussed to put a better option the table, but never did.”

Ultimately, the continued scapegoating of McGurk speaks to Turkey’s stubborn refusal to ever find fault with itself.

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