Spotlight - Brett McGurk: U.S. diplomat, Turkey’s persona non grata

The "McGurk effect" is when hearing one thing and seeing another produces the perception of different sound.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, seems to have the same effect on Turkey first described by his neuroscientist namesake in the 1970s.

The U.S. presidential envoy’s task of coordinating the efforts of the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq was always going to be a complex, delicate and even dangerous diplomatic undertaking.

But in Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, McGurk has become vilified as a latter day colonialist accused of trying to break up the country, promoting and even arming separatist groups fighting against the government in Ankara.

Brett McGurk

It is perhaps a product of the current very low ebb of relations between Turkey and the United States that McGurk’s efforts to get normally feuding ethnic and sectarian armed factions and Middle Eastern governments to work together against ISIS have been misinterpreted by the government in Ankara.

After hoping that Donald Trump was someone he could work with and long resisting taking direct aim at the U.S. president, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week sarcastically called him “Lord Trump” in reference to his decision recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Erdoğan has ramped up the number and volume of his tirades against the United States. The Turkish president has taken a stab at the U.S. legal system, saying a sanctions violations trial in New York in which a witness has implicated him was being conducted by a “fake court”.

Erdoğan is also angry at Washington’s insistence that it cannot simply hand over Erdoğan’s former ally-turned-enemy Fethullah Gülen without going through the legal extradition process.

Gülen, who ran a global network of schools and businesses likened by critics to a cult, is accused of ordering last year’s abortive military coup from his mansion in rural Pennsylvania.

But the thing that perhaps angers Erdoğan the most is U.S. backing for Syrian Kurdish forces that he and his government regard as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting an armed separatist campaign in southeastern Turkey for more than 30 years.

The emergence of a successful autonomous Kurdish area in Syria is regarded as an existential threat in Turkey as it could increase the likelihood of the same thing coming about in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.


So when images emerged of McGurk shaking hands with Syrian Kurdish fighters – the United States’ most effective ally in fighting ISIS in Syria – it incensed Turkey.

"Brett McGurk, the Lawrence of Kurdistan?" asked columnist Murat Yetkin in Hürriyet Daily News in July.

In Turkish eyes T.E. Lawrence, the British army officer and diplomat who helped galvanise Arab opposition to Ottoman Turkey in World War One, is far from the dashing philosopher hero portrayed in the 1963 David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia, but a scheming orientalist spy who bribed otherwise contented subjects to betray their masters in Istanbul.

“It is no surprise that the Turkish government sees McGurk as an active official working to provide Kurdish autonomy in Syria, effectively under the control of the PKK, after the defeat of ISIL,” Yetkin wrote, using another acronym for ISIS.

The article coincided with McGurk's visit to Ankara on June 30 after carrying out inspections in northern of Syria. It is not clear if and when McGurk, who is said to be one of the most well travelled State Department staffers, will ever be able to visit Ankara again.

Brett McGurk
Brett McGurk

Two Turkish associations have already applied to the courts to have him arrested.

The first, a group calling itself the "Platform for Civilian Struggle against the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation", accused McGurk of “financial and logistical cooperation with and assisting of terrorist organisations”.

The second, a group of military veterans, said McGurk was “attempting to overturn Turkey’s constitutional order in cooperation with terrorists”.



Should prosecutors follow up the complaints and launch an official investigation, they could then issue an arrest warrant for McGurk.

John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2012 until earlier this year was also demonised in a similar manner to McGurk.

In both cases Ankara is arguably trying to pursue a policy encapsulated by the Turkish proverb "Kızım sana söylüyorum; gelinim sen anla". Literally it means: "I am telling you my daughter; so that you, my daughter-in-law, might takes heed.” In other words, rather than addressing and directly targeting the Trump administration, its surrogates are put in the firing line.