McGurk’s shuttle diplomacy in northern Iraq and northern Syria fomented debate over whether he wanted to divide the two countries along ethnic lines and repeat the unethical conduct of Lawrence of Arabia.
Brett McGurk, who was the top American envoy for the US-led anti-Daesh coalition in Iraq and Syria, quit his post in early 2019.
The resignation was submitted to protest US President Donald Trump’s announcement of pulling the troops out of northern Syria at the time.
While the departure of McGurk, who has harshly criticised the recent Turkish operation, created ripples in the American press, little is known about the controversial legacy he left behind in both Iraq and Syria, where ethnic and sectarian clashes have become a permanent feature, as Washington and its allies encouraged sectarian politics among Kurdish-dominated regions.
McGurk has had a long public service record under the US judiciary and executive branches, fulfilling different duties from helping write the Iraqi constitution in 2004 following the 2003 American invasion to the formation of the anti-Daesh international coalition, comprising 62 nations, in 2014 in Brussels.
Many in the American establishment praise his public service record and his handling of overseas assignments. He was even a candidate for the US ambassador post in Iraq in 2012. But an extramarital issue surfaced in the American media, forcing him to withdraw his nomination from the diplomat post.
Though in the US he has earned a reputation of being a skilled overseas bureaucrat, his role in the Middle East is being questioned. Many experts think that the Iraqi constitution, one of his creations, has divided the country along ethnic and sectarian lines, and those divisions have time and again dragged the country back into the path of violence. Despite the US troops leaving behind a trail of destruction in Iraq, the country still suffers from the bouts of sectarian and ethnic violence.
Beyond Iraq, where McGurk was instrumental in replacing the Nouri al Maliki-led government with the one headed by Haider al Abadi in late 2014, McGurk has played a divisive role in Syria too.
According to his colleagues, McGurk was the man who masterminded the establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which became a US ally in the fight against Daesh, in 2015. The SDF was led by the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by both Washington and Ankara.
Despite Turkey’s constant protests, Washington has repeatedly denied any links between the PKK and the YPG, continuing to arm, train and fund the YPG, which has angered Turkey most.
“Brett McGurk, the US special envoy in the fight against Daesh, is definitely and clearly giving support to the PKK and YPG. It would be beneficial if this person is changed,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in May 2017.
Since 2014, McGurk has often been spotted with YPG commanders in northern Syria’s Kurdish-populated areas as he has spent a considerable time in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to organise anti-Daesh peshmerga forces.
His shuttle diplomacy has fomented a debate on whether he wanted to repeat what the British archeologist and army officer Lawrence of Arabia did in the Middle East before and during World War I.
Lawrence is known to have invented lies against the Ottoman troops to sow the seeds of discord among the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual communities of the Arab lands. The former Ottoman Empire faced several revolts in the Middle East when the great war was around the corner.
Now McGurk's role in the Middle East is being criticised for its divisive nature. With the Iraqi constitution drafted by him and other American experts, the KRG has already secured a legal status in northern Iraq.
The SDF and the YPG have also notably defended a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria and a federative Syria like its neighbour Iraq has. And McGurk was “the driving force” in the founding of the SDF.
It’s not clear whether the US-led Western bloc was trying to legitimise the PKK by using the YPG as a front against Daesh, and later blow the bugle for the creation of another Kurdish autonomous region in Syria, just like the one in Iraq.
“The YPG is one of the [Western] means that are used to restore the PKK a legitimate legal status,” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of the Turkish national intelligence agency.
Through the YPG experience, he said, the Western bloc apparently aims to turn the PKK into a legitimate outfit and remove the terror status from the group.
McGurk was reportedly the man behind legitimising such armed groups. Since he is no longer in the scene, it remains to be seen how the US and its allies will engage with groups like SDF and YPG.