Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the global coalition fighting ISIL, resigned this week over his disagreement with President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to pull US troops out of Syria, US media reported on Saturday, citing unnamed sources.
Both the Associated Press and CBS news reported the departure, saying McGurk submitted his resignation letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday, a day after Defense Secretary James Mattis said he was leaving his post.
In the letter, which was described to the Associated Press by an official familiar with its contents, McGurk said fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) were on the run, but not yet defeated as Trump had said.
He added that the premature pull-out of American forces from Syria would create the conditions that gave rise to ISIL.
McGurk, whose resignation is effective on December 31, was planning to leave the job in mid-February after a US-hosted meeting of foreign ministers from the coalition countries, but he felt he could continue no longer after Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Mattis’s resignation, according to the official speaking to the Associated Press.
The White House and State Department could not immediately be reached for comment.
Trump’s surprise announcement of the troop withdrawal came on Wednesday, with the president declaring victory over ISIL. Since then, he has defended the move, but backtracked saying, ISIL has “largely been defeated”.
The White House said some of the 2,000 US troops in the country were already returning to the United States.
Many politicians have called the plans for the full withdrawal rash and dangerous.
Mattis, perhaps the most respected foreign policy official in the administration, announced on Thursday that he will leave by the end of February. He told Trump in a letter that he was departing because “you have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
The US began air raids in Syria in 2014, and ground troops moved in the following year to battle ISIL and train Syrian rebels in a country torn apart by civil war.
The decision will fulfil Trump’s goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that the ISIL group remains a threat and could regroup in Syria’s long-running civil war.
McGurk said at a State Department briefing on December 11 that “it would be reckless if we were just to say, ‘Well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now.’ I think anyone who’s looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.”
A week before that, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US had a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to prevent a resurgence of ISIL and stabilise Syria. He said it would take 35,000 to 40,000 local troops in northeastern Syria to maintain security over the long term, but only about 20 percent of that number had been trained.
McGurk was appointed to the post by former President Barack Obama in 2015 and retained by Trump.
He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, and during the negotiations for the landmark Iran nuclear deal by the Obama administration, led secret side talks with Tehran on the release of Americans imprisoned there.
McGurk was briefly considered for the post of ambassador to Iraq after having served as a senior official covering Iraq and Afghanistan during President George W Bush’s administration.
A former Supreme Court law clerk to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, McGurk worked as a lawyer for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion and joined Bush’s National Security Council staff, where, during 2007 and 2008, he was the lead US negotiator on security agreements with Iraq.
Taking over for now for McGurk will be his deputy, retired Terry Wolff, who served three tours of active duty in Iraq.
Jim Jeffrey, a veteran diplomat who was appointed special representative for Syria engagement in August, is expected to stay in his position, officials said.