U.S. withdrawal from Syria left regional plan in tatters – former envoy McGurk

A U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria will spell the end for the global coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) and could reverse the gains made against the extremist jihadist group since 2014, the former U.S. envoy to the coalition has said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops and funding from Syria has also jeapordised broader U.S. policy goals in the country, Brett McGurk, the former special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, said at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution think tank.

The coalition was first formed in September 2014 to counter the rapid territorial gains made by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

McGurk said the United States had built an “extraordinary coalition” of 22 members, but that if Trump follows up on his threat to fully withdraw U.S. troops, it could well mean the withdrawal of its partners.

Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal decision also left a two-year campaign plan that U.S. officials had successfully negotiated with their partners in ruins, McGurk said.

“So anyway, this is all water under the bridge at this point, but it's emblematic of how it's difficult to lead a coalition or to have members sign up with us when you don't have a steady leadership, you have this kind of incoherence,” he said.

Trump announced his aim of fully pulling U.S. troops out of Syria in December 2018, after a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the weeks prior.

Ankara views the Kurdish militias that make up the backbone of ground forces in the coalition as terrorists due to their links to insurgent groups that have fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

Trump’s announcement drew protests from senior U.S. officials and lawmakers, who believed a withdrawal would spur a Turkish invasion of the Kurdish-controlled territories south of its border.

McGurk and James Mattis, then Defense Secretary, resigned in response to Trump’s decision, which they said would damage allies’ trust in the United States.

The decision has also been a great setback for Washington’s broader strategy in Syria, which included countering Iranian influence in the country and forcing Syrian President Bashar Assad to change his governance structure, the former special envoy said.

“So our objectives have increased, as then the president says pull out all your resources, or 50 percent of your resources,” McGurk said.

“That in my experience you're taking on risk week by week. And so if you don't have your ends and your means aligned your policy isn't stable. And I think in Syria right now that's where we are,” he said.