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Brett McGurk, Former Special Envoy For Coalition Fighting ISIS, Weighs In On Syria


It's a great day for civilization. That's what President Trump had to say today after his administration struck a deal with Turkey to temporarily end the violence in northern Syria. Trump had sent his vice president and secretary of state to Ankara to negotiate with Turkey's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who agreed to pause the fighting for five days to allow Kurdish forces to retreat safely.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just want to thank and congratulate, though, President Erdogan. He's a friend of mine, and I'm glad we didn't have a problem because, frankly, he's a hell of a leader, and he's a tough man. He's a strong man, and he did the right thing. And I really appreciate it, and I will appreciate it in the future.

CORNISH: This is coming 11 days after President Trump ordered a pullout of U.S. troops from northern Syria, a move that cleared the way for Turkey to attack those areas controlled by the SDF, the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces.


For more on this, I spoke with Brett McGurk. He served as a special envoy for the coalition fighting ISIS, starting in 2015 through last December. McGurk resigned that month after President Trump announced for the first time that he was pulling troops out of Syria.

BRETT MCGURK: What happened in December when the president made very clear that he wanted to pull everyone out was everybody knew that the U.S. wanted out. So Erdogan knew the U.S. wanted out. President Putin knew the U.S. wanted out. Assad knew that. Hamane and Tehran knew that. Everybody knew that. And that just really diminished our ability to really affect the situation.

CHANG: Brett McGurk says the best way to exit Syria would have been for Trump to leave some troops there just long enough for the SDF and the Syrian regime to strike their own deal.

MCGURK: One way to approach this would have been - if you had a national security process like a normal administration has, you would have meetings with him and lay out different options. That doesn't really happen in this administration. So you just tend to have the rug completely pulled out from under you by the president with Americans in harm's way, which I think is a real dereliction of duty from a commander in chief.

The presence in northeast Syria was sustainable because it was very light and small. It was backed by a huge coalition, and we were not spending U.S. money or losing American lives.

CHANG: Putting aside the question of whether it was wise for the U.S. to withdraw troops in the first place, what do you think needs to happen now to restabilize the region?

MCGURK: Well, I think the reality is that we are now leaving Syria in the most shambolic way imaginable. You always have - I've been to all these facilities a number of times - you always have evacuation procedures in place. Withdrawing on an emergency basis and then bombing your facility as you leave is the absolute worst-case, break-glass emergency scenario, and that is now happening.

And the entire - I actually just spent a few days in the Middle East region - the entire region is seeing this unfold on their televisions. And I think the impact - this is being etched in people's minds as we simply abandon facilities and the Russians walk in.

CHANG: Well, Vice President Mike Pence announced today that the U.S. and Turkey agreed to a cease-fire in Syria. How far does a cease-fire go to resolving this situation?

MCGURK: Well, this is all breaking news. It sounds like what the arrangement is is for Syrian Democratic Forces to pull off the border, to basically hand the Turks what they want. It depends on the scope and scale of this. But with U.S. forces leaving Syria, we just have to be very realistic and not overstate our capacity to influence the course of events on the ground.

And I think this is all damage control. This will be worked out - and I hate to say this - this will now be worked out by President Putin and President Erdogan. Erdogan announced yesterday that he is on his way to Moscow on October 22 to talk with Putin about the situation in Syria. And those are now the power brokers. And I bet knowing - having worked this file for a number of years, having spent hours with the Russians and with the Turks and others - that they have already likely worked out some arrangement and drawn lines on the map in terms of how far Turkey will go and where the Russians and the regime will come out.

I think the Americans, at this point, are a sideshow. And I think anyone who thinks that we can meaningfully control or influence this situation is mistaken. We might be able to buy some pauses here and there, but this will now be worked out by other powers as we evacuate the country.

CHANG: So it seems like you're saying that the U.S. has reached a point of no return, that there's no way, diplomatically, the U.S. can recalibrate the dynamics at this moment.

MCGURK: Well, we are evacuating Syria and blowing up our bases as we leave, so that significantly diminishes our influence and leverage. I saw a U.S. official on a background to the press the other day say, all of our goals in Syria remain the same; this is just an adjustment in our means. That is simply delusional.

The first principle of any strategy, of any sound foreign policy is you have to align your ends, your objectives with your ways, how are you going to do them and your means, your resources. If you don't have those - these - those three things aligned, you are going to head into failure and potentially a debacle. So to say that all of our goals in Syria remain the same, even as we are evacuating Syria and handing positions over to the Russians, I think, is quite delusional.

And I think it's very important now to face the hard reality that we are leaving Syria and that the power brokers now are Russia and Turkey and Iran. And we need to think urgently about how to protect our most important national interests and that - primarily our interests against an ISIS resurgence. So I would be thinking immediately about how to strengthen the Iraqi border, how to work with Iraqi security forces and thicken up our presence with them to make sure that we have sound intelligence as ISIS seeks to reconstitute because this is likely all to pour back into Iraq, and you can easily have a repeat of the 2013 scenario.

CHANG: Brett McGurk was the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS before resigning in December. He's now at Stanford University.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

MCGURK: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.