President Trump shocked Washington and the world Wednesday by announcing that the United States would withdraw all of its roughly 2,000 troops in Syria. In opposition to the move, the next day Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned his post (effective February 28, 2019) via a remarkable public letter rebuking the president, his go-it-alone “America First” policy and his irresolute stance regarding China’s and Russia’s “authoritarian model.”
The world has suddenly become a more dangerous place.
The way Trump made the decision is as stunning as the decision itself. The seismic strategic shift, supplemented by a subsequent announcement that America would cut its 14,000 troops in Afghanistan by half, involved only minimal consultation with his national security team — including Mattis and National Security Advisor John Bolton, who both opposed the change — and none with key allies. It left even loyal Republican senators dismayed.
Some sources concluded that a December 14 phone call between Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan triggered this step; Erdogan contends that America’s Kurdish allies in Syria are terrorists and had been pushing for the withdrawal. A US Defense Department official suggested that Trump’s domestic political troubles might have also been at play — an unproven but plausible rationale, given that the president often makes dramatic moves to refocus public attention away from his mounting legal woes. And given his puzzling affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who praised the decision, there will inevitably be speculation that Trump took the step partly to please the Kremlin.
Be that as it may, the US president’s stated rationale for the withdrawal, as articulated in a tweet, was that, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” Just a few days earlier, however, the president’s special envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS had declared that “no one who does this day to day is naive enough to know you can just declare victory and walk away.” Though the movement is a shadow of its former self, up to 15,000 ISIS fighters remain in Syria, still controlling pockets of territory or lying low for the moment.
That moment may have come with the withdrawal, which subsequent announcements pegged at taking from 60 to 100 days. The immediate threat from a reconstituted ISIS would be in the Middle East, but it is not far-fetched to imagine that the movement or its allies could strike as far afield as America or India.
The ramifications of the troops’ departure reach far beyond a potential ISIS revival, however. It strengthens the hands of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and of course Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country and the region. It weakens those of US allies Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It exposes America’s Kurdish and Arab tribal allies in Syria to potential decimating attacks by Turkey or Assad. It places the population in allied areas at risk of attack — and of a humanitarian disaster due to the likely loss of US food and medical aid for 1.3 million people in those areas.
What’s more, the move and the Afghanistan withdrawal will undoubtedly intensify the Afghanistan government’s concerns about the US potentially abandoning that country.
Yet, despite all this, the bigger story may well be Mattis’s departure. To appreciate the magnitude of Mattis’s resignation, some historical context is in order. Under the intense pressure of the Watergate scandal in the summer of 1974, President Richard Nixon (who ultimately resigned on August 9) was acting in an increasingly unstable manner — reportedly drinking heavily and wandering the halls of the White House. Worried about that instability, then Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger took the unprecedented step of instructing the military to follow any presidential orders only after checking with him first.
The United States once again is led by an unstable president who faces the legal walls closing in. By one count, 17 different investigations into Trump and his associates are underway, with that of Special Counsel Robert Mueller being but the most prominent.
Thankfully, and unlike Nixon, Trump is a teetotaler who does not run the risk of a drunken rampage. But also unlike Nixon, he’s shown no appreciation for either constitutional restraints on presidential power or the awesome apocalyptic danger that nuclear weapons represent.
Which brings us back to Mattis. He was the last remaining independent “adult in the room” in an administration increasingly stacked with ultra-hawks and sycophants. He was a check on Donald Trump’s most mercurial and destabilising impulses. He represented a security blanket for those fearing how far Trump might go as the looming threat of impeachment or post-presidential imprisonment increases.
In fairness to Trump, withdrawing US troops from overseas commitments was one of his presidential campaign’s planks. What’s more, the US end game in Syria was never clear, given the dominant positions of Assad, Russia and Iran in the country. The ongoing troop presence there seemed to be part of some vague plan to indefinitely muddle through.
But it would be one thing to carefully consult within the administration and with allies, consider possible policies, pick troop withdrawal as the least bad option and prepare contingencies for the populations and interests that would be affected. It’s quite another to prompt a pull-out after a quick chat with a foreign leader, possibly in deference to domestic political exigencies or a hostile foreign power’s mysterious influence on presidential actions. But this is Donald Trump’s modus operandi.
And it’s an operating method no longer modified by Mattis. Where we go from here, in terms of protecting both US interests and international stability, is anyone’s guess.
(The author is a widely recognised international development scholar and an expert on US politics. Views are personal.)