Brett McGurk, one of the influential figures shaping the US policy on Middle East, stands out as the dark side of the US policy in the region, from negotiations with Israel to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Washington’s policies in Iraq and Syria.
The US-based HuffPost news site conducted interviews with 23 US officials and individuals regularly engaged with the Biden administration on the Middle East policy for its special report titled 4 People Shaping US Middle East Policy in Washington.
Besides prominent President Joe Biden, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, surveyed people mentioned less well-known Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for Middle East and North Africa, as one of the key figures in the US’ Middle East policy.
Dubbed as “one of the strongest people regarding the US national security,” McGurk was said to be determining the options that Biden will consider on many issues, ranging from negotiations with Israel to arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Colleagues described McGurk as a person with a clear vision on how US interests should be improved, prioritizing these interests over human rights.
A former US official, speaking to HuffPost, defined McGurk as “a tremendous power with no transparency or accountability whatsoever.”
McGurk’s influence on Middle East issue emphasized
Another anonymous US official, who said McGurk has a “controversial career,” remarked: “The State Department has no real influence on the Israel-Palestine issue because Brett is at the center of this matter.”
According to the official, McGurk primarily “focused on an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, consistently pushed for engagement with the Saudis and sought to put that relationship at the forefront of what they are trying to do in the Middle East.”
According to the officials from the Biden administration, McGurk’s work in Saudi Arabia has had significant benefits beyond its potential impacts on the Israel-Palestine issue, such as maintaining a shaky cease-fire in Yemen since April 2022.
It was also noted that McGurk, in a speech last month, mentioned that before the Oct. 7 attacks, the US had engaged in intense discussions about a Saudi Arabia-Israel agreement that included tangible progress for Palestine.
Regular contact with foreign officials angry at Israel
People interviewed said McGurk “continues to maintain his importance” after the Oct. 7 attacks. McGurk, they said, has been “deeply involved in the negotiations between Israel, Hamas and regional governments that have enabled the return of more than 100 Israeli hostages to their home and increased the amount of humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza.”
McGurk’s team was said to be “tightly managing” the rhetoric of US officials on this issue, and regularly communicating with foreign officials who express deep anger over largely unlimited support the US provides to Israel.
According to a former US official, McGurk’s theory about the region is that the Middle East is both “a source of instability and resources.” The official described this approach as an “old-fashioned, colonial mindset. “
Another US official commented: “He (McGurk) thinks with a mindset that is very much like the Bush administration. It is a mindset that has not changed over the course of the past 25 years.”
Jasmine el-Gamal, who served in the US Defense Department for about nine years until 2017, said: “I don’t know what happened to Brett that makes him so unkind when it comes to the US foreign policy. I don2t know what he thinks of us as Muslims, as Arabs.”
His long tenure seen as ‘proof of his skills, useful relationships’
McGurk’s powerful position in the Biden administration is the “culmination of a long journey,” it was said, and added: “Obama tried to appoint McGurk as US ambassador to Iraq, but a scandal led him to withdraw from consideration.”
Supporters of McGurk see his long-standing tenure as a “proof of his skills, useful relationships, and reliability.”
Retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, who served as defense secretary during the Trump administration, said in a 2022 interview with HuffPost that he personally pressured the Trump administration to keep McGurk in office.
Stands out in Saudi Arabia issue
While it was claimed that Saudi Arabia released several human rights activists under “some pressure” and began to “end its brutal military operations” in Yemen, McGurk was said to have persuaded Biden to visit Saudi Arabia in 2022.
McGurk also serves in Iraq
When McGurk, a lawyer, turned his career toward diplomacy in 2004, his first job was to provide counsel to then-US ambassador to Baghdad, John Negroponte, in drafting the Iraqi Constitution.
The years McGurk served in Iraq from 2004 to 2009 were a period of restructuring for the country. He played a pivotal role in the team that laid the groundwork for the chaos in Iraq.
The Iraqi Constitution, in which McGurk played a significant role, was accepted in October 2004 despite the disapproval of Sunni Arabs in the country.
The constitution introduced federal governance to the country and granted autonomy to the three provinces with Kurdish majority in northern Iraq, causing concern particularly among Sunni Arabs.
One of the reasons for the dispute over the constitution was the intervention of Shia religious leaders in politics. Shia leaders wanted Iraq to become an Islamic republic, while Sunnis opposed this.
McGurk’s remarks drew attention again when he said in March 2015 in northern Iraq: “We are not insistent on the unity of Iraq. We support the constitutional framework.”
The prioritization of Kurds and Shias by McGurk’s team brought forth internal dynamics in Iraq such as increased resistance, instability, and fragmentation; as well as external dynamics like the sensitivity rising over the possibility of a Kurdish state in neighboring countries, and close relations with Shia power in Tehran.
In an interview published in The Washington Post on Nov. 3, 2011, McGurk said: “Iran has a significant influence in Baghdad, but we do too,” revealing that he was not bothered by Iranian influence.
Contributes to emergence of Daesh/ISIS
Supported by McGurk’s team in Iraq, Shia leader Nouri al-Maliki became increasingly authoritarian from 2008 to 2014, pushing the country back to the period before the Petraeus plan.
Iraq, where Sunnis were marginalized, descended into political, economic, and social chaos. Bombings and armed attacks sometimes resulted in the death of up to 200 people daily.
Daesh/ISIS emerged in 2004 as one of the groups gaining influence after the US invasion and declaring allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
The organization, which garnered support from marginalized Sunnis, accelerated its progress through alliances with tribes and former Baath members, who opposed the Maliki government.
Thanks to his “Iraq experience” between 2004 and 2009, McGurk became deputy special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS under Gen. John Allen in September 2014.
Strives to impose Iraq model on Syria
As the architect of Iraq’s federal structure, McGurk, under the pretext of combating Daesh/ISIS in northern Syria, began to support the YPG/PKK, aiming to draw a fragmented map of Syria after the civil war.
During his tenure as deputy to Allen, McGurk considered Türkiye as the most important partner against the Daesh/ISIS terror threat.
However, just a month before taking over the special envoy role, McGurk met with terrorist YPG/PKK leaders in Erbil, northern Iraq. In a statement after the meeting, he addressed the role of Kurds in the fight against Daesh/ISIS for the first time.
McGurk said: “The war is not over yet. Kurds are losing lives every day, and we encourage them to unite against this danger.”
Taking over the role from Allen in October 2015 and appointed as the special envoy for the Coalition to defeat Daesh/ISIS appointed by then-President Barrack Obama, McGurk swiftly shifted his focus from Ankara to the “Rojava” (meaning west in Kurdish) of YPG/PKK.
Despite Türkiye’s insistence on simultaneous efforts against Daesh/ISIS in Iraq and Syria, McGurk concentrated on Iraq, paving the way for increased support to YPG/PKK under the pretext of combating Daesh/ISIS in Syria as Daesh/ISIS gathered there.
Adopts PKK-dominated structure
While recommending the unity of Kurds, McGurk kept his distance from the Kurdish National Council (KNC), formed by Syrian opposition Kurds.
After September 2015, McGurk visited the regions occupied by YPG/PKK in northern Syria, while the terrorist organization violently suppressed the activities of KNC.
Siamend Hajo, KNC foreign policy chief, told Anadolu that they explained to US officials that YPG/PKK envisioned a dictatorial federation within itself, and the officials acknowledged that they knew about all the illegalities of the organization but chose to ignore them.
Poses with terror group leaders
In his new role, McGurk visited the region occupied by the YPG/PKK in northeastern Syria several times within two years, many of which were covered by the media.
The first visit took place on Feb. 1, 2016, on the anniversary of the YPG/PKK’s occupation of the Ayn al-Arab district after its liberation from Daesh/ISIS.
After Türkiye’s Operation Euphrates Shield on April 25, 2017, McGurk expressed concern about Türkiye’s airstrikes in northern Iraq and Syria, which were carried out without coordination with the US or the coalition established against Daesh/ISIS.
Following his statement, US officials visited the region, and photos were served to the media showing McGurk with Ferhat Abdi Sahin, known by his code name Mazloum Kobani, a wanted PKK terrorist, and Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the YPG/PKK, while conducting an “inspection.”
After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with then-President Donald Trump in the US, McGurk visited YPG/PKK positions in northern Raqqa on May 17, posing with the leaders of the terrorist organization, including Sahin Cilo, Aldar Khalil, and Enver Muslim.
Efforts to legitimize terror group PKK/YPG
As part of McGurk’s project to legitimize the PKK/YPG, the terror group, with its weapons and logistical support, united some small groups it kept close under the umbrella of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) on Oct. 12, 2015.
After this date, US officials, especially McGurk, made statements supporting the SDF in the fight against Daesh/ISIS.
Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of the US Special Forces, admitted on July 22 that the YPG/PKK changed its name under McGurk’s instructions.
He said: “I was lucky to have a great partner like Brett McGurk with me, because they were asking for things that I couldn’t give them. They wanted a seat at the table, whether it’s Geneva, or Astana, or wherever the talks are happening about the future of Syria. But because they have been branded as the PKK, they could never get to the table. So we paired them militarily and McGurk was able to keep them in the conversation.”
Notable Manbij move
With McGurk’s support, the terror group YPG/PKK declared consecutive cantons in northern Syria. McGurk accelerated preparations for a federal state in Syria with administrative autonomous structures.
The most striking move was the entry of the YPG/PKK into the town of Manbij, west of the Euphrates River, with US military aid in August 2016.
US officials assured Türkiye that after the liberation of Manbij from Daesh/ISIS, the organization would leave the town.
However, in November 2016, McGurk admitted that YPG/PKK members were in the town and claimed that they would leave after providing training to local elements.
Despite this, the terrorist organization solidified its occupation of Manbij, even distributing identification cards with its seal.
Seeks support for federation agenda
After the occupation of Raqqa by the YPG/PKK on Oct. 17, 2017, it was reported that McGurk met the next day in Al Hasakah with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syrian intelligence, to discuss the autonomous region that the YPG/PKK would declare.
Former Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had already announced on Sept. 26 that they could negotiate autonomy with the YPG/PKK.
Talks on autonomy between the terrorist organization and the Assad regime gained momentum after this period but eventually reached an impasse.
Source : aa