Jan 13, 2021 - World

Biden pick McGurk seen in Turkey as an Erdoğan antagonist

McGurk. Photo: Jordan Pix/Getty Images

Ankara — The appointment of Brett McGurk as Middle East coordinator on President-elect Biden's National Security Council has already set alarm bells ringing in Turkey.

Why it matters: McGurk, who served as counter-ISIS envoy under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, is considered a staunch critic of the Turkish government’s policies in the Middle East and an outspoken advocate of America's partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat ISIS.

  • The SDF is seen by Turkey as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Flashback: In 2017, the Turkish government called for McGurk to be removed from his post over his close ties with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

  • In 2019, McGurk suggested Turkey might have been sheltering ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 
  • In the same year, after a fiery speech from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, McGurk tweeted: “Erdoğan called on Muslims to 'unite against the west' at the very moment Turkey is hosting U.S.-designated-terrorist Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas in Istanbul."
  • McGurk was also very critical of Turkey’s plans to establish a safe zone in Syria, claiming it would “effectively extend Turkish border 30 kilometers into Syria, including areas of Christians, Kurds and other vulnerable minorities.”

What they’re saying: A critical op-ed by academic Talha Abdulrazaq was published on the website of Turkey's state-run TRT World network on Jan. 9, arguing that the appointment of McGurk meant “more terror to fight terror." Abdulrazaq described McGurk as the mastermind behind the arming of the Syrian Kurds.

  • “In the name of fighting ISIS, McGurk was the architect behind eschewing state-actors and long-time NATO allies such as Turkey in favor of using terrorists to fight other terrorists in Syria,” it reads.

What to watch: McGurk will be responsible for coordinating U.S. policies not only in Syria, but also in Iran, Iraq and Libya — all of which are of importance to Turkey.

  • However, the Syrian battleground has changed a lot since McGurk left his post in Dec. 2018, with Turkey's area of influence expanding and America's narrowing.

The bottom line: McGurk will have to find ways to work with Turkey.

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