General assignment reporter covering national and breaking newsDecember 23 at 4:45 PM
In a May 2017 Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was flanked by perhaps the two most important U.S. officials coordinating the fight against the Islamic State.
One was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph F. Dunford.
The other one was Brett McGurk, a State Department official whom Mattis introduced as “President Trump’s special envoy” to the coalition.
McGurk was tasked with coordinating international efforts, from NATO allies to militia groups, in the effort against Islamic State militants in the region.
But in the midst of his resignation to protest Trump’s sudden decision to pull out about 2,000 troops from Syria, McGurk himself was somehow overlooked by Trump, according to the president.
“Brett McGurk, who I do not know, was appointed by President Obama in 2015,” Trump said Saturday on Twitter. “Was supposed to leave in February but he just resigned prior to leaving. Grandstander? The Fake News is making such a big deal about this nothing event!”
It is not clear whether Trump meant he never met McGurk or was otherwise unfamiliar with him. McGurk was scheduled to leave in February, making his instant resignation symbolic.
But Trump’s assertion raised questions about his awareness of or interest in the intricate policies surrounding one of his cornerstone campaign promises — the defeat of the Islamic State, in which McGurk played a central role in Washington, Baghdad and elsewhere.
“It’s almost certainly true the president has, in fact, met Brett McGurk,” a former senior defense official who worked closely with McGurk told The Washington Post. Having not done so, the former official said, “would be an indictment of the president himself had he not met the individual coordinating the international coalition against the Islamic State.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders did not return a request for comment asking whether and when Trump was briefed by McGurk himself or whether Trump was provided reports or briefings prepared by the envoy.
The State Department replied to a request for comment with a message saying the press office was operating in a “reduced status” because of the government shutdown.
The fallout over McGurk’s departure and the Syria withdrawal brought sharp rebukes from former officials and some conservatives. “Why don’t you know the man who has done more than any civilian to degrade ISIS?” Susan E. Rice, Obama’s national security adviser and U.N. ambassador, wrote on Twitter.
McGurk has been described by current and former officials as tirelessly dedicated and respected by militia commanders and ambassadors alike, and his commanding expertise was sought and deferred to within the U.S. government. His involvement at high levels in government and diplomatic circles signaled a trusted presence in the coalition since his appointment as envoy by Obama.
His work in the Middle East started under President George W. Bush and spanned three administrations. That experience is perhaps without equal, Derek Chollet, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration, told The Post.
“George W. Bush and Barack Obama knew and respected Brett and considered him one of their most important advisers,” Chollet said. Trump has shown evidence of disengagement from policy and a disregard for expertise, he said, “and it’s very telling that Donald Trump claims to have never heard of him.”
McGurk was a chief architect of Bush’s troop surge in Iraq and had a senior role in negotiating the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq for Obama. That experience carved out trust with Iraqi leaders, Chollet said, which spurred several postings that eventually lead to the envoy appointment.
In the Syria campaign, he was the driving force behind the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces. His tenacity and personal touch in building relationships served the counter-Islamic State effort well, colleagues told The Post.
McGurk met face-to-face with Kurdish and Arab leaders of the SDF and was a continual presence in Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, becoming the most recognizable American official in the country at a time when an Islamic State blitz threatened both capitals.
Aside from Mattis’s resignation, the most significant factor in McGurk’s decision was an inability to reconcile the president’s decision with his experience as the U.S. diplomat who “spent time with the guys on the ground who have been fighting and dying,” including Kurdish fighters in Syria, said an official familiar with his views. “To just suddenly, in one split second” have to tell them the United States was leaving “is hard to face.”
Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria who worked closely with McGurk, told The Post he agreed with Trump’s decision but said the National Security Council did a “lousy job” articulating Trump’s desire to leave Syria after largely eradicating the Islamic State, though fighters remain.
Earlier this month, McGurk said in a briefing that defeating the physical caliphate is just one phase of a “much longer campaign.”
In that way, McGurk got ahead of Trump, said Ford, who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University.
“I think there’s a problem in this system if Brett doesn’t understand what the president’s cautions and policy preferences are,” Ford said.
It is unclear how the United States will manage its military presence in Syria in the coming weeks and months or whether Special Operations troops will assume a greater role in flushing out remaining pockets of militants there.
The U.S. military may also keep supplying SDF forces and launch airstrikes against Islamic State fighters — efforts that would probably be complicated by a reduced American presence.
But any action that requires partner forces risking their lives may be viewed with skepticism after the fallout with McGurk, said the former senior defense official who worked with him.
“Our commitment is only as good as the president’s next tweet,” the former official said.
John Hudson, Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.
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