Brett McGurk Recounts the Fight Against ISIS and Considers the Future Of Northern Syria


Brett McGurk
Former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk listens to questions from reporters during a Pentagon briefing May 19, 2017. Photo: Win McNamee - Getty Images

Following the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the decision by President Donald Trump to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria, there are many questions surrounding the future of the region, which is controlled in part by Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists, former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk told Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Director Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast.

ISIS initially gained momentum in Syria in 2012, when the government had eroded and a state of anarchy was developing, said McGurk, who is the Payne Distinguished Lecturer at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. “Starting in 2012 and 2013, thousands of foreign extremist fighters were pouring into Syria, looking for extremist groups to join. And Baghdadi’s guys — which became ISIS — basically took advantage of this.”

By 2014, ISIS controlled a territory with about eight million people and had revenues of about $1 billion a year, McGurk noted.

“I was an early advocate that we needed military force almost immediately,” he said. “To get someone recruited right into Syria, then go blow himself up at a kid’s soccer game, or an ice cream shop — if you have that pipeline, you know you have something pretty serious.” 

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The Anti-ISIS Strategy
In the summer of 2014, President Barack Obama decided to take action, with a few conditions: first, that the coalition against ISIS would be broad, and include countries outside of the United States; second, that U.S. troops would work with local partners in Iraq and Syria to fight the terror group; and third, that the coalition would share the costs and burdens associated with the military campaign.

“The campaign launched during the third week of August or so during that summer, and it was a real war,” McGurk said. “It was a very difficult, town-by-town struggle, but a successful war.”

The Death of al-Baghdadi
While al-Baghdadi will be replaced by a successor, the former ISIS leader is “somewhat irreplaceable,” said McGurk. He claimed to be a caliph — a religious leader in Islam believed to be a successor to the Prophet Mohammed — and in 2014 declared the territory controlled by ISIS in Iraq and Syria a caliphate, or Islamic state.

“People around the world who pledge allegiance to ISIS pledge allegiance to him — so Baghdadi is a unique figure,” McGurk said. “His removal from the scene is excellent news.”

Related: Read Brett McGurk’s thoughts on what it takes for U.S. foreign policy to succeed in the Middle East