Top U.S. envoy in fight against ISIS resigns over Trump’s Syria withdrawal

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Top U.S. envoy in fight against ISIS resigns over Trump’s Syria withdrawal




Brett McGurk is seen during a press conference at the Pentagon.

Brett McGurk, the State Department’s special envoy for the global effort to defeat the Islamic State, took his post under the Obama administration in 2015. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

The top U.S. envoy overseeing the effort to defeat the Islamic State terrorist network is resigning in protest over President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Brett McGurk‘s decision comes just days after Defense Secretary James Mattis announced he was quitting, a move also spurred in part by Trump’s choice to withdraw the troops. It’s likely that other resignations could follow as outrage has spread in Washington and beyond over Trump’s sudden action.

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McGurk, whose official title is Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, also held top government roles in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidential administrations. He submitted his resignation Friday night and informed his staff, a Trump administration official confirmed to POLITICO. The resignation takes effect Dec. 31.

“ISIS is on the run, but it is not yet defeated,” McGurk wrote in an email to his team announcing his resignation.

“The recent decision by the president came as a shock and was a complete reversal of policy that had been articulated to us by [National Security Adviser John] Bolton and others,” McGurk wrote. “It left our coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered with no plan in place or even considered thought as to consequences.”

In a tweet Saturday evening, Trump sought to distance himself from McGurk, claiming he did not know the career diplomat serving at his State Department.

“Brett McGurk, who I do not know, was appointed by President Obama in 2015. Was supposed to leave in February but he just resigned prior to leaving. Grandstander?” the president wrote online. “The Fake News is making such a big deal about this nothing event!”

McGurk had been rumored to be on his way out, likely sometime early next year; he had at times clashed with other Trump national security officials. But the president’s abrupt call to immediately withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria accelerated his plan to leave.

Earlier this month, McGurk had dismissed the possibility of a U.S. military retreat from Syria, telling reporters: “[O]bviously, it would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now.”

After CBS News first reported McGurk’s resignation, the commander-in-chief defended his pullback of U.S. troops in a pair of tweets Saturday, writing that “News reports” on the withdrawal “are mostly FAKE.”

“On Syria, we were originally … going to be there for three months, and that was seven years ago — we never left,” Trump wrote online. “When I became President, ISIS was going wild. Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!”

Trump insists that U.S. troops have achieved their sole goal in Syria: defeating the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS. Other U.S. officials and analysts agree that the terrorist group has lost nearly all of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq, but they argue that many of its fighters are still at large and could easily regroup if American forces leave now.

Recent media reports indicate Trump is also primed to order a similar withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan.

That possibility, along with Trump’s call on Syria, has led to howls of outrage among both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Lawmakers fear hasty withdrawals will come back to haunt the United States later if either countries becomes an even greater source of security threats to America.

Trump on Saturday complained that the backlash to his recent military maneuvers was the result of unfair news coverage, tweeting: “If anybody but your favorite President, Donald J. Trump, announced that, after decimating ISIS in Syria, we were going to bring our troops back home (happy & healthy), that person would be the most popular hero in America. With me, hit hard instead by the Fake News Media. Crazy!”

Many opponents of the Syria withdrawal are also alarmed by the prospect of the U.S. abandoning Kurdish fighters it has supported there as they battled the Islamic State. Neighboring Turkey has threatened a military offensive against the Kurds in Syria, which it fears will embolden its own separatist Kurds.

McGurk, who declined comment, is not the only U.S. official who has a suffered a blow from Trump’s decision, which was announced Wednesday. James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, had been publicly stating as recently as Monday that America remains committed to the war-torn Arab country.

McGurk was not the most popular figure in the Trump administration. Trump aides who are especially hawkish on countering Iran did not feel he was sufficiently in their camp.

Mattis had been seeking to bring McGurk over to the Defense Department, possibly as assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, but that did not come to fruition, according to a U.S. military official and a former U.S. official familiar with the issue.

Iran’s influence and military presence in Syria and Iraq is of grave concern to many Trump aides, who see the Islamist-led government in Tehran as a threat to U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

But the Iranian role is also complicated when it comes to the Islamic State. The terror network is dominated by Sunni Muslim extremists, while Iran is run by Shiite Muslim theocrats. In Iraq, militias affiliated with Iran have fought against the Islamic State, boosting Iraqi troops backed by the United States.

Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria is especially puzzling because those troops were considered a small, if still important, counter-weight to the Iranian military presence in Syria. Iran has invested blood and treasure in helping shore up the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.

In Washington, McGurk is considered an intense, divisive and even dashing figure, but most of all a survivor. Still, his career has hit some obstacles along the way.

He withdrew his nomination to become the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2012 after leaked emails revealed he had become intimate with a Wall Street Journal reporter in Baghdad in 2008. McGurk and the reporter, Gina Chon, who were both wed to others at the time, have since married each other.

McGurk is planning to go to Stanford University, starting in March. He will teach a course and write, the Trump administration official said.

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