What will Brett McGurk’s appointment mean for U.S.-Turkey relations?

The appointment of Brett McGurk as the National Security Council’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator for the incoming Biden administration is a selection that won’t be welcomed by Ankara and could have significant ramifications for U.S.-Turkey relations. 

McGurk was formerly the special presidential envoy to the U.S.-led multinational military coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) group in both the Obama and Trump administrations. In this capacity, he dealt with, and advocated for, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main component of which is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), essentially the Syrian branch of Turkey’s arch-enemy the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The SDF/YPG were, and remain, America’s main ally against ISIS in Syria and have done the most to fight that group on the ground there over the past six years, incurring at least 11,000 deaths to rollback and destroy ISIS’s self-styled caliphate. 

McGurk resigned in December 2018 in protest when President Donald Trump announced he was going to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria. Later, when Trump unilaterally ordered the drawdown of U.S. troops from the Syrian-Turkish border in October 2019 following a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara launched a destructive cross-border invasion which McGurk, then out of government, strongly criticized. When U.S. troops came under fire from Turkish forces during that operation, for example, he unequivocally tweeted that, “This was not a mistake.”

When the U.S. launched a raid into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province that assassinated ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that same month, McGurk wrote an oped in The Washington Post pointing out that Baghdadi’s hideout was near a large Turkish military presence and that Ankara had “some explaining to do.” 

Even while he was in government, the Turkish government and its media mouthpieces often denounced McGurk, charging him with supporting the PKK. After the announcement of his new appointment, a Turkish official, speaking under condition of anonymity, told Middle East Eye that, “Beyond a doubt, McGurk has harmed Turkish-American relations.” 

Analysts consulted by Ahval News shared their views of what this appointment could mean for U.S.-Turkey relations following the transition in Washington D.C. 

“While I would caution against reading too much into any one appointment, this is certainly more evidence of what a tough time Erdogan is going to have with the new administration,” said Nicholas Danforth, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund. 

“However Ankara feels about Brett McGurk, their bigger problem is that a lot of people in the U.S. government share his view of Turkey.” 

More generally, Danforth foresees “a lot less patience” regarding Ankara’s position on a variety of issues ranging from its controversial purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missile systems to the situation in Syria under the Biden administration. 

Suleyman Ozeren, a Turkey expert at George Mason University, believes this appointment is significant since McGurk’s “role will be more critical and broader than that of his previous responsibilities regarding Syria and Iraq.” 

However, he also anticipates that the Biden administration will likely pursue “diverse options to deal with Turkey’s Erdogan problem, including seeking a dialogue initially.” 

“The outstanding problems, such as the Kurds in Syria and the S-400 issue, could erode the incoming Biden administration’s patience quicker than Ankara might expect,” Ozeren said. 

McGurk isn’t the only person in the incoming administration to have criticized Erdogan. President-elect Biden himself has previously called the Turkish leader an “autocrat” and said his administration will prioritize democracy advocacy and the rule of law. 

“Erdogan’s problem is that if he moves toward democratization in a real sense, this could be his demise,” Ozeren said. 

Consequently, in order to placate the Biden administration, Erdogan will likely “pretend to implement ‘reform’ toward rule of law without giving up any of his authoritarian rule.” 

“I believe that Erdogan’s authoritarian rule and his rogue policies are major factors on tensions between Ankara and Washington,” Ozeren added. “In other words, Erdogan needs controlled tensions to maintain his power in Turkey.”

He foresees the Biden administration’s Syria policy as a continuum of the Obama administration’s one, with the SDF/YPG remaining “a major source of tension” between Washington and Ankara. 

“While some in Biden’s team think that they could work with Turkey in Syria, there are potentially more areas of confrontation than collaboration and cooperation unless Ankara makes significant policy changes regarding the Kurds in Syria and in Turkey for that matter,” he said. 

 Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst, also foresees the Biden administration adopting many of the same policies as Obama’s.  

“Biden is basically selling the old wine in a new bottle,” he said. “He filled his administration with Obama’s men, so the expectations to get something unique or new out of his administration on the foreign policy level is diminishing.” 

Bakeer believes that this will result in people in the Middle East having “to face catastrophes similar to those that erupted in the second term of the Obama administration.” 

“In this sense, appointing McGurk in this position is not received positively in Ankara for sure,” he said. “I would say that this is the impression also for the majority of the people in the region except militias affiliated with the PKK, such as Syria’s PYD [the political arm of the YPG], and Iran’s IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps].” 

Since Obama left office, Turkey has launched successive ground incursions against the SDF/YPG. It invaded the isolated northwestern enclave of Afrin in January 2018 and later conquered a large swath of territory between the main Syrian Kurdish regions in the northeast in October 2019. 

In light of these operations, Turkish officials calculate that they have created “new realities” or facts on the ground in northern Syria that will give the Biden administration and McGurk little to no space to maneuver in that country. 

“I would say that appointing McGurk is very much poisonous to U.S.-Turkey relations and he could still deepen the rift between the two counties because of his very narrow and false perspective to the region,” he said.