All Over the Map

An Interview with Brett McGurk

The United States has been trying to work with the actors in the region and on the ground to try to bring this resolution to a close. That is the big objective. But the uncertainty of U.S. commitment from the President — not from those working the file day to day, but from the President — makes it even more difficult to accomplish that objective (which was already extremely difficult to begin with). Because to end the Syrian conflict, you're talking about dealing with the actors on the ground. Like it or not, that's Russia, that's Iran, and that's the Syrian regime. I right now do not see a diplomatic path to bring the conflict to a close under the auspices of the U.N., which is the current policy.

OR: How do you assess the state of ISIS?

McGurk: ISIS was a unique and horrific phenomenon. I think we've forgotten what it was like in 2013 and 2014. I've been somewhat critical of President Trump, and I've also served with President Obama. I worked very closely with him on the ISIS campaign. But in 2011, he made a quite fateful announcement in which he, from the White House, said: President Assad of Syria must go. He said this, I think, without really asking how that was going to happen, what was going to come after Assad, how other actors in the region would recalculate their own activities given that that is now declared U.S. policy, or — given our own history of regime-change endeavors — how all this was likely to turn out.

The real fault here lies, of course, with President Assad and his war on his own people. What he saw happen in 2011, '12, and '13 was a vacuum open up. Other actors in the region saw at least what they thought was an opportunity to support an insurgency against the Assad regime. You start to have weapons and money flowing into Syria to support that insurgency, and on the back of that you had these calls from extremists — including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS — calling for all military-aged Muslims and also their families to come pour into Syria and come join what is to be a caliphate. You had preachers like Yusuf Qaradawi speaking to 60 million people every Sunday night from Al Jazeera, calling on military-aged males to go pour into Syria and fight. You had this phenomenon of 40,000 people pouring into Syria over this period. Most of them came on commercial flights. They flew into Turkey and then they went into Syria.

Fast forward to where we are now. We have done a very effective job from the summer of 2014 onwards in building an international coalition. Again, this is one of the largest coalitions in history. It's not just a military coalition, it's about shutting off these travel routes, shutting off their finance, making it harder for them to communicate, doing counter-propaganda and counter-messaging. We've pretty much stopped that flow of people from all the around the world into Syria. And it was that flow of people — many of whom are totally indoctrinated extremists, suicide bombers — that really gave ISIS this tremendous military heft. I think we've done a very good job at degrading that.

We've also taken away their physical space. They were a unique terrorist organization: a quasi-state. They controlled eight million people in Iraq and Syria. They had a billion dollars a year in revenues. They were committing acts of genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other minority groups and planning attacks all around the world.

I think we've done a very good job at significantly degrading what was a physical caliphate. They cannot control territory anymore. It's not a quasi-state entity. It remains an insurgent entity, and it is not primarily the U.S. role to defeat that insurgency. It is the role of the Syrians and the Iraqis to do that, but we do have a significant enabling influence on the ground. I would very much recommend, and it seems to be U.S. policy, that we remain in Iraq.

We're not fighting in Iraq; we're not taking casualties in Iraq. We are helping to train and advise the Iraqi security forces who have dramatically increased in capacity and capability over the last four to five years. I think that should continue. We're joined in Iraq by 22 other coalition partners who are carrying a lot of the burden, and that's good. In Syria, again, I think a small U.S. military presence is quite important — as long as its consistent with a coherent strategy and plan for Syria, which I don't think we have right now.

OR: Does Trump, broadly speaking, have a foreign policy strategy?

McGurk: Secretary Pompeo gave a speech in May saying that Trump's foreign policy is a return to the principles of the Founding Fathers and a return to realism; he quoted John Quincy Adams saying that America does not go looking for monsters to destroy abroad. We lead by our example. It's a foreign policy of prudence and restraint, of being careful about how we act in the world. If you look at polls of the American people in terms of where they are on foreign policy, they're not really isolationists. They just want to be smart and prudent, to see this basic alignment of ends and means which I talked about earlier. I think there's something to that.

Unfortunately, I don't think that reflects Trump's foreign policy.

If you look at his foreign policy on some critical issues, it's all over the map. In Venezuela, we have a declared policy of regime change without any real coherence of how to bring that about. In Syria, our declared policy is to stay until the enduring defeat of ISIS, until all Iranians leave Syria, and until there's irreversible momentum in the political process. On Iran, if you look at the declared policy, it's pretty much a regime-change policy (though it isn’t described as such). We want the Iranian regime to fundamentally change its behavior in the world and internally to an extent really impossible without regime change.