Does Brett McGurk’s appointment mean that the US policy of threatening friends and placating terrorists will return under a Biden administration?

In the comeback tour that no one sane who values protecting civilian life in the Middle East wanted, senior US diplomat Brett McGurk has been strongly touted to head up President-elect Joe Biden’s national security team for the Middle East and Africa. 

Both the New York Times and a CNN correspondent have confirmed McGurk’s appointment, though it has yet to be formally announced by Biden’s transition team.

In fact, and as reported by the NYT, it would appear that Biden is bringing back most of the people he worked with over two terms as vice president to former President Barack Obama. What we seem to be getting is essentially a second coming of the Obama-Biden era, one that saw the erosion of America’s influence with its allies and a rash of terrorism the likes of which the modern world has never experienced.

McGurk was a key player in that erosion, and it now seems like he is back to finish the job.

McGurk empowered terrorists

There are few men alive today who have done more to empower the cause of violent extremist organisations than Brett McGurk. His worldview has been painted by the war on terror paradigm, having started his career under George W. Bush, serving as the US special envoy to the anti-Daesh (IS) coalition, before finally quitting under the outgoing Trump administration.

This ideological bent of viewing the world in different shades of terrorism, rather than through problem-solving by relying on tried and true alliances, influenced his decisions taken on behalf of the US government. 

Not only did he directly ensure US funds and arms would fall into the hands of terrorist organisations in Syria, but his actions also emboldened a plethora of sectarian Iran-backed Shia militants in Iraq. These decisions directly led to human rights violations and war crimes.

In the name of fighting Daesh, McGurk was the architect behind eschewing state-actors and long-time NATO allies such as Turkey in favour of using terrorists to fight other terrorists in Syria. 

While Turkey shares a long border with Syria and was already involved from the very earliest stages of the Syrian revolution that aimed to overthrow Bashar al Assad’s dynastic tyranny in favour of a democracy of the people, the US, under McGurk’s urging, decided to not only ignore but to endanger its long-standing ally.

American military and economic support suddenly found itself being funnelled to the Syrian branch of Turkey’s outlawed PKK, the somewhat imaginatively named People’s Protection Units, or YPG, that harboured secessionist intentions using violence and terrorism.

Of course, the PKK is also recognised as a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union, and so Washington faced a legal and moral hurdle in justifying McGurk’s close friendship with terrorists. Rather than be honest, the US, under McGurk’s urging, pretended not to know that the PKK and YPG are linked to such a degree that one scarcely knew where one ended and the other began.

Of course, this came despite the YPG openly stating its links to the PKK and pledging loyalty to its leadership. The Americans knew this, which is why they strenuously advised the YPG to “change your brand” to create plausible deniability. This duplicitous manoeuvring had the effect of endangering Turkey’s borders and putting its citizens’ lives in grave danger, as the world’s foremost superpower and supposed upholder of international law and democracy was now officially arming, training, and financing a terrorist organisation.

Similarly in Iraq, McGurk’s politicking with Middle Eastern lives turbocharged the march to power of dozens of pro-Iran Shia extremists who had banded together under the aegis of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which has since 2016 been recognised as a formal branch of the Iraqi armed forces. 

As usual, the excuse was “the fight against Daesh” but, just as in Syria, there were other policy options available that did not empower those who predictably committed a plethora of sectarian war crimes and human rights violations against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs.

Is this the administration everyone was pining for?

The primary problem with leaders like Donald Trump is that their actions make even bad choices seem good. That is precisely what the Middle East will be getting with Biden who seems to think that it’s a good idea to appoint to powerful positions men like McGurk who undermine old allies and empower disruptive non-state actors threatening the territorial integrity of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.

While it is beyond any doubt that Trump was and is a rampant threat to rule of law and democracy domestically - and he has further entrenched Israeli exceptionalism in Palestine by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State - he at least had the good sense to drop the YPG in Syria and to confront violent Tehran-sponsored Shia militias in Iraq rather than facilitate their slaughter of protesters.

While that certainly does not absolve him of other actions, it showed a welcome change of tack in other areas the US had notoriously gotten so wrong for so many years.

With McGurk back in the driving seat, however, it seems like Trump’s reorientation was a short breather before we are thrust back towards an ill-conceived American strategy of appeasing and facilitating terrorists while undermining the territorial integrity and national security of key nations and allies. This will all be done, ironically, in the name of fighting terrorism.

Biden has already been critical of Turkey for supporting Azerbaijan in its recent conflict with Armenia, despite international law recognising Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. He has already intimated that he will seek to overthrow Turkey’s democratic order

Now, he has reappointed McGurk, sending a clear signal to Turkey, one of the Middle East’s only pillars of stability and democracy, that a policy of threatening friends and placating terrorists is now back on the cards.

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