The U.S. State Department is reportedly considering cutting the office of the envoy who coordinates the American-led international offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in Iraq and Syria now that the jihadist group is teetering on the brink of defeat.
Foreign Policy (FP) first reported about the Trump administration’s alleged decision, noting that the “move … has raised concerns of a growing U.S. diplomatic vacuum in Syria and Iraq.”
However, the news agency acknowledged that Brett McGurk, the envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, a component of the U.S. State Department, is still on the job and refused to confirm any plan to dissolve the special envoy position.
“ISIS remains a lethal threat and a top priority of Secretary Tillerson and this Administration,” Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, told FP. “We will continue to ensure the effort receives the high-level attention and necessary resources required to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
The alleged upcoming dismissal of McGurk also comes as chaos continues to intensify in Syria, as NATO member Turkey is intent on pushing the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces out of the Afrin region, located in northern Syria near the country’s border with Turkey.
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.
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.
McGurk is a holdover from the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama and took over as envoy in 2015.
In August 2017, Secretary Tillerson addressed a letter to American lawmakers, advising them that his department would abolish many of the nearly 70 U.S. special envoy positions.
“Today, nearly 70 such positions exist within the State Department, even after many of the underlying policy challenges these positions were created to address have been resolved,” wrote the secretary.
Tillerson explained in the letter that he believed the State Department could “better execute its mission” by integrating some positions, highlighting concerns that the current system is diluting the government’s effectiveness with redundant duties, reported the Associated Press (AP).
According to FP:
Congressional aides with knowledge of the changes said the [anti-ISIS] 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.
In the letter to lawmakers, Tillerson revealed that only 30 (about 45 percent) of the 66 envoy or representative positions at the time would remain.
Of the other 36 positions, the State Department would abolish 9, integrate 21 into other offices, merge 5 with other jobs, and transfer 1 to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the federal government’s foreign aid component.