Trump Administration Ready to Scrap Envoy to Anti-ISIS Coalition
With the Islamic State on the brink of military defeat, the State Department is poised to eliminate the office charged with coordinating the fight.
The Trump administration plans to scrap a special envoy position that coordinates the campaign against the Islamic State, a move that has raised concerns of a growing U.S. diplomatic vacuum in Syria and Iraq.
The proposed move comes at a moment of renewed bloodshed and diplomatic chaos in Syria, with a NATO ally, Turkey, locked in combat with U.S.-armed and trained Kurdish forces. Some Western government officials and experts said it was too soon to consider withdrawing the envoy, particularly when the United States has struggled to articulate a coherent political strategy following military successes against the Islamic State.
“Now more than ever, the U.S. needs some figure at the top who is out there doing this diplomatic work,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
The possible change to the special envoy’s office, headed by veteran diplomat Brett McGurk, reflects changing realities on the ground, where Islamic State militants are on the retreat. The move also would fit into a broader reorganization led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has sought to rid the State Department of various special envoy positions, congressional staffers, and current and former government officials told Foreign Policy.
Congressional aides with knowledge of the changes said the envoy’s duties will most likely be scaled back and folded into the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau, as well as other offices. Contracts for employees who are not career civil servants would not be extended, and the remaining career State Department staff would be assigned to other bureaus.
The timing of the planned change remained unclear, as well as whether McGurk would take up another diplomatic post in the administration. “The idea is that [he] might be offered something else in some corner of government,” said a congressional aide familiar with the discussions.
The State Department said the diplomat was still on the job and could not confirm any plan to dissolve the special envoy position. “ISIS remains a lethal threat and a top priority of Secretary Tillerson and this Administration,” said spokesperson Heather Nauert. “We will continue to ensure the effort receives the high-level attention and necessary resources required to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
McGurk’s likely departure and the elimination of the counter-Islamic State envoy position would leave a potentially significant gap in U.S. diplomacy in the region, particularly amid criticism that Washington has for years failed to formulate a clear strategy beyond the military defeat of the Islamic State.
By most accounts, McGurk led the Iraq portfolio and played a significant role in shaping Syria policy. “Frankly, no one knows Iraq like he does,” another congressional aide told FP.
McGurk, who took over as special envoy from retired Gen. John Allen in 2015, is a rare survivor among political appointees in Washington’s foreign-policy establishment. Originally assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in 2004, he has served for nearly 14 years in high-level positions under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
The planned shift in McGurk’s office, however, has been a long time coming. Tillerson has made eliminating “redundant” special envoys throughout the State Department bureaucracy a cornerstone of his reorganization plan, and a department document released last year noted that the envoy position would be “reassessed as ISIS becomes a more diffused threat.”
That time appears to have come for the Trump administration: The Islamic State has lost control of nearly all the territory it held in Syria and Iraq three years ago. The Iraqi government declared victory over the group after pushing its fighters out of Mosul, and crucial national elections are scheduled for May.
Still, according to current and former officials, the move could aggravate a perception that Washington is not fully engaged in diplomacy in the Middle East and is beginning to withdraw now that the military side of the counter-Islamic State fight is nearing an end. More than a year since U.S. President Donald Trump entered office, numerous ambassadorships and senior diplomatic positions, including the assistant secretary of state who oversees the region, remain vacant. Other diplomats are serving temporarily in acting roles, but they lack the authority and weight that come with a presidential nomination and a Senate confirmation.
The administration also has yet to name a new envoy for Syria. One top candidate, John Hannah, who worked as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney in George W. Bush’s administration, reportedly turned down the position.
Without a specific office within the State Department, some current and former officials worried that the diplomatic and military campaign against the Islamic State could lose momentum and the authority necessary to manage a fractious coalition of more than 70 nations. “Organizing the coalition was a hellish thing to deal with,” a senior Western official told FP. “The Americans ran it, disciplined it, and kept everyone herded in.”
The proposed move also comes at a delicate time, as the coalition transitions from battlefield operations to a more nuanced diplomatic role, aimed at preventing the return of the Islamic State and the political conditions that allowed it to spread. Leaving the task to other, less empowered bureaus in the State Department could mean the diplomatic work receives a lower priority, experts said.
“I almost feel like it’s inevitable,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Look what happened the last time we diverted attention from al Qaeda and didn’t look at the political dynamics that gave rise to the Islamic State.”
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, said it could be premature to declare victory and that a diplomatic drawdown could mean repeating the mistakes of past administrations. “To get rid of the office and to get rid of the coordination could be Trump’s ‘mission accomplished’ moment,” he said.
Other current and former officials, however, saw the the proposed changes as a move in the right direction. With the Islamic State largely defeated militarily, the office had outlived its usefulness, they said, while others questioned the potential duplication of special envoys in the State Department bureaucracy.
“The head of the CT [counterterrorism] bureau has had his eyes on it for a while, and if you look at the org chart, there’s nothing that the special envoy is doing that the counterterrorism bureau couldn’t do,” said Eric Rosand, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former counterterrorism bureau official at the State Department. “This is totally consistent with Tillerson’s view.”
McGurk’s role at the State Department has also become a sore spot for some career officials in other bureaus, who saw his office gradually taking more and more responsibility away from the normal hierarchy. Special envoys have proliferated over the past several administrations, to the chagrin of those who see them as a way of making a political statement rather than addressing real policy issues.
“For every envoy like Brett McGurk who is a major player in Washington, you’ve got half a dozen who are just getting in the way,” said James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq.
Whether or not the envoy position is eventually retained, McGurk has left his mark on the counter-Islamic State fight, and U.S. policy in the Middle East more generally. He worked with commanders during America’s military surge in Iraq and helped draft the status of forces agreement with Iraq that led to the U.S. military’s withdrawal in 2011. Given his striking longevity and singular focus on Iraq and Syria, he will be difficult to replace, congressional aides and foreign diplomats said.
The length of time McGurk has spent focused on Iraq, dating back to the early days of the U.S. occupation, has allowed him to build relationships throughout the region. And while he has at times provoked the ire of regional actors, particularly Turkey, which resents his support for arming Kurdish fighters, he has generally gotten high marks, both from U.S. officials and military officers and high-level members of the coalition.
“He’s politically adept, tactically, strategic, and exceptional,” said the Western official. “A lot of the coalition’s successes are due to Brett McGurk.”
Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. @Rhys_Dubin