All Over the Map

An Interview with Brett McGurk

Octavian Report: What drove your decision to leave the Trump Administration? What drove Trump to announce a pullout of troops from Syria?

Brett McGurk: I'd served across the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations. I was planning on leaving in the Trump Administration in the spring and coming to Stanford, but what happened, really starting in the summer of 2018, was a fundamental disconnect between the objectives of U.S. policy and the resource commitment from the President. I have learned across three administrations that the fundamental element of strategy is to align your ends, ways, and means. We had an increasing misalignment.

What happened in the summer of 2018 — particularly with the arrival of John Bolton, who for better or worse has much different views of America's role in the world than the President he serves — is that our objectives in Syria kept increasing. The objective that we had been pursuing was very clear: the enduring defeat of ISIS. I was helping to lead that campaign. I was in and out of Syria at least every couple months or so. We had a pretty good resource base for that, including one of the largest coalitions in history, but the President in the spring basically told us we couldn't spend any U.S. taxpayer money on post-military operations in Syria.

This was a big problem. We had just retaken the city of Raqqa from ISIS. That was a real constraint on the campaign. I had to scramble to collect resources from the coalition. When Bolton came in, the objectives expanded significantly: we were going to stay on the ground until all the Iranians left Syria. I thought that was quite an ambitious objective, given the history of Syria and the fact that we had a very limited commitment in Syria. We were also going to stay on the ground until a transition away from the Assad regime began and reached an irreversible stage, which also was going to take a number of years.

Those are all fine and valid objectives if you have a real commitment from the President and the resources to actually see them though, but the President made very clear he didn't want to be there and he didn't want to spend any money. We had this fundamental incoherence, and I actually thought we had resolved it by early December: we had an NSC process that reviewed a lot of this, and we came up with a new campaign and a strategy. One of the key elements of that strategy was that we were going to stay on the ground at least for another couple of years. My role was leading the coalition together with Secretary Mattis. We gathered all the military members of the coalition in early December. They all signed on to this plan, so I thought it was in decent shape.

Then towards the end of the month, we had a little bit of a crisis with Turkey (which I thought was very manageable). The President spoke with President Erdoğan. That's when President Trump announced and made the decision that we were going to withdraw from Syria entirely. I concluded that I really couldn't continue in my role with credibility or even integrity, given that we had just told something totally opposite to all these capitals around the world.

OR: What have been the consequences of Trump’s decision, in-country and globally?

McGurk: I think it reinforced a sense of incoherence in U.S. intentions and U.S. commitments. That is true both for the way our adversaries react and also for the way our allies react. As a diplomat, when you're overseas, you carry with you your credibility. Your credibility comes from the fact that you're speaking for your country and your administration and the President that you're serving. The value of a handshake from an American diplomat cannot be overstated.

What started to happen month by month in the Trump Administration was that the value of an American handshake began to significantly diminish. You could feel this with our allies in London or Paris or Abu Dhabi. There was a great deal of questioning about what the policy might be from day to day. You're always one tweet away from a total reversal in policy. I also felt this quite dramatically with our adversaries and competitors. I led a channel with Russia on Syria for a number of years, and the fact that you had a President who could change his mind on a whim made it much more difficult. I think it's quite damaging.

Syria is just one example. I give tremendous credit to my successor Ambassador James Jefferies and others who are continuing to carry on the mission. They're doing all they possibly can, but we're now in a situation where, on the orders of the President, we have significantly reduced our forces in Syria, already a very small number to begin with. If you start to go below the numbers we had you start to cut into bone of the mission.

I wrote a long piece in Foreign Affairs about the future of Syria and where we are. We basically have influence over northeast Syria. It's a significant part of the country. The majority of the oil reserves in Syria are there. It's the agricultural breadbasket of Syria. It houses between three and four million people. It used to be the heart of the ISIS caliphate. It is now under the influence of the Syrian Democratic Forces — a force of about 60,000 Syrian fighters that the United States and our Special Forces and our diplomats helped organize and build. It's quite a success. It is a mixture of Kurds and Arabs and Christians in a diverse array. They've been quite effective and quite successful, and they now influence that third of Syria. But the backbone is the very limited U.S. presence on the ground.

As our presence recedes, that force is increasingly surrounded by very hostile actors. You have the Iranians to the south, together with the Russians and the Syrian regime. You still have a residual ISIS presence. You have a camp for displaced persons of about 60,000 people, including thousands of hardcore ISIS fighters. You have Turkey to the north. Turkey is, of course, a NATO ally, but it’s one with whom on this issue in particular and a number of issues these days we have very serious, significant disagreements. So it might look stable, but day-to-day these things can start to degrade. I'm concerned that the situation might degrade.