Brett McGurk, the Lawrence of Kurdistan?

Brett McGurk, the Lawrence of Kurdistan?

Brett McGurk, the Special Envoy of the U.S. President for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), arrived in Ankara on June 30 after carrying out inspections in the north of Syria on June 28-29. 

His arrival in Ankara to talk to Turkish foreign and defense ministry officials coincided with a telephone call by U.S. President Donald Trump to Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan on matters related to Syria, the fight against ISIL, and other Middle East and Gulf affairs including the ongoing Qatar crisis. It also coincided with Qatari Defense Minister Halid Bin Muhammad al-Atiyye’s visit to Ankara.

McGurk is not exactly among the most popular U.S. diplomats in Ankara, because of his role in the partnership between the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) waging the ground campaign against ISIL. Highlighting that the YPG is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has for decades been in a fight with the U.S.’s NATO ally Turkey, Erdoğan has warned Trump against siding with one terrorist organization in order to defeat another. In vain, he stated that Turkey was ready to fight alongside the U.S. in order to take Raqqa from ISIL.

After McGurk’s inspections in northern Syria - with photos of him shaking hands with YPG members particularly driving Ankara crazy - he reportedly said that “all members of our coalition” are “welcomed to Washington for meetings at the political directors level in July, in order to organize and coordinate the next phases of our global campaign,” according to a State Department readout on June 29. In Ankara’s eyes, this means PYD/PKK members will be in Washington in July for political talks.

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. That would amount to something even more sizable than the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq after the Iraqi Kurds’ collaboration with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Erdoğan said boldly last week that trying to sooth Ankara by promising to take back arms delivered to the YPG would was useless, claiming that supplying the weapons was against NATO agreements.

In the eyes of some angry Turkish officials, McGurk’s role in all this somewhat resembles the role of TS Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, 100 years ago. Some see McGurk as a kind of “Lawrence of Kurdistan.”  
Before becoming a world renowned British spy and operative, Lawrence was an archeologist with a particular interest in Arab affairs. When the First World War broke out in 1914, he was busy with excavations in Jarablus, now on the Turkey-Syria border.

In 1915 the British government decided to set up an Arab bureau in Cairo, mainly a military intelligence center under brigadier general Gilbert Clayton. The center was due to coordinate the fight against the Ottoman army in the oil-rich Arabian peninsula and Mesopotamia, still under Ottoman rule. It was Clayton’s idea to agitate, organize and team up with Arab tribes against the Turks. Lawrence was one of the first civilians he recruited for the military intelligence operations, having an excellent capacity to communicate with tribal chiefs, especially the Emir of Mecca, Sharif Hussein, who was also an influential figure in the Wahhabi movement. 

Gertrude Bell was another person, also an archeologist, linguist and adventurer, who Clayton recruited together with Lawrence and who also had superb qualities and links within the Arab tribes. Clayton also had a strong office staff, including Lieutenant Colonel Mark Sykes, one of two men behind the Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide Ottoman territory between the U.K., France and Russia.

Neither Bell nor Lawrence were in charge of British operations against Ottoman rule in Arab regions. But both of them were very active in the field, with Lawrence taking part in military operations, raids and ambushes. The Arab Revolt, starting with raids on Turkish garrisons near Aqaba, by the Red Sea, in 1916, ended with the capture of Damascus on Oct. 1, 1918. The Ottoman government then signed the Mudros Armistice, accepting defeat in the war at the end of the same month.

There is a genuine mutual mistrust between Turkey and the U.S., growing steadily and fueled by various issues. This is not a good sign for the future of the entire region, because in this part of the world history is never something confined to the past.