When US President Donald Trump was elected, he leaned heavily on retired and current US military officers to guide his policies abroad and at home. Now, with the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis
, the generals are going home and with them their policies in Syria and other countries.
This marks a major turning point for the administration and Trump appears poised for a new round of isolationism and global retreat that will change the Middle East and the US posture globally.
After Trump’s election, he didn’t have a major team in place to transition into the presidency. A week after the vote, according to Bob Woodward’s account, Trump met with General Jack Keane at Trump Tower. Keane recommended that Trump reach out to retired four-star Marine Corps general James Mattis.
Mattis had been pushed out by the Obama administration in 2013. Keane said Mattis was very experienced in the Middle East and noted he was a combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Fear, the Woodward account, Trump met Mattis in November.
“We need to change what we are doing,” Mattis told Trump. “It can’t be a war of attrition, it must be a war of annihilation.”
John Kelly, who had left Southern Command in 2016, also joined the administration as head of Homeland Security. He then became White House Chief of Staff in July 2017.
Joseph Dunford would continue on as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He had been nominated in 2015 and, like Kelly and Mattis, had a Marine Corps background.
In February 2017, Trump also named Army Lt.-Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser after retired Army Lt.-Gen. Michael Flynn had resigned for misleading statements that would eventually lead to his indictment.
The McMaster-Mattis-Kelly team would be a key trio in the first year of the administration. They also played a central role as Trump sought to delegate more to the military. Trump wanted to delegate more to the military, not micro-manage issues.
Foreign Policy pointed out that the actual shift in strategy was minimal because most of the policies on the ground, such as working “by, with and through” US partners would continue. Many of these generals had crafted the current approach of using a minimum number of troops and a maximum amount of air power, combined with intelligence gathering, to defeat terror groups.
A defense official in April 2017 said that new policies were “beginning to take shape.” It was a sense that the commanders could “do a bit more.”
Some critics expressed concern at the military-heavy White House. They pointed out that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also came from a West Point background and had been in the army during the Gulf War. He would lead the CIA and then the State Department under Trump. Lt.-Gen. Keith Kellogg would also join on the National Security Council.
Derek Harvey, a former Colonel who had served in Iraq and wanted the US to be tough on Iran, would also serve on the NSC, but he would be pushed out by McMaster in July 2017.
Trump wanted to focus on the war on ISIS, while Mattis wanted a broader strategy for the Middle East, according to accounts. Early on it seemed that McMaster would focus on North Korea, while Mattis would focus on a strategy to defeat ISIS.
THE WAR ON ISIS was going smoothly under Trump. Mosul in Iraq was liberated in the summer and Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, was liberated in the fall of 2017. That is when Trump appeared to first think about getting out of Syria.
Saudi minister for Gulf Affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, visited Raqqa as part of a Saudi discussion about how the Gulf state could help stabilize Sunni Arab areas of eastern Syria.
At the time, the US was doing most of the work of the 70-nation anti-ISIS coalition. Trump had kept on Brett McGurk, Obama’s anti-ISIS envoy, as the point person for the coalition. In early 2018, Trump began pressing for other US allies, such as Saudi Arabia, to foot the bill for post-ISIS Syria operations.
The coalition and US Department of Defense said that ISIS had lost 98% of its territory by March 2018. In mid-March, the Trump administration indicated Riyadh might spend billions in Syria and Trump said the US would be leaving “very soon.”
However, the US didn’t leave Syria in April. Instead, John Bolton replaced McMaster in March, and Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. The changeover in March meant that the US decided in April to focus on Iran as a threat in the Middle East. This is clear because Trump left the Iran deal in May.
Bolton and Pompeo wanted to shift US strategy to confront Iran and use eastern Syria as leverage. With the US and its mostly Kurdish partners in eastern Syria controlling around a third of the country, this could be used to influence Damascus. Throughout the summer and fall, the administration rolled out a new concept about stabilizing eastern Syria and using it to leverage against the Iranian presence in Syria. The US was planning for the long term.
Then Trump confirmed that Kelly would be leaving as chief of staff. The announcement in early December came just days before Trump’s call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 14, when he decided to wrap things up in Syria. Numerous reports confirm that Trump didn’t consult with most of his administration.
James Jeffrey, the US envoy for Syria engagement, gave a talk about the future of Syria on December 17 without appearing to know anything about Trump’s plans to leave. Mattis also appears to have been stunned. Reports indicate that Trump and Kelly were also on cold terms ahead of Kelly’s leaving. This left Trump isolated, the exact opposite of his desire to delegate to his generals, and instead he made the quick decision on Syria without the war cabinet anywhere in sight.
Mattis drafted a resignation letter and provided it to Trump on December 20. He doesn’t specifically mention Syria, but he does mention US allies and the need for the US to sustain global influence.
“While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies,” he writes. He mentions US leadership in relation to the coalition to defeat ISIS. That coalition’s effectiveness is now in question as the US leaves Syria. The fight against ISIS is not over, with the US launching 200 air strikes in the second week of December.
TRUMP’S DECISION to leave Syria, seemingly made in haste, but actually after around one year of Trump already questioning why the US was doing the heavy lifting in Syria, comes as the generals are being eclipsed in his administration. Their desire for a clear strategy and tendency toward caution and status quo appears to be leaving with them.
Trump also wanted to leave Afghanistan in the first months of his administration.
“I want to find out why we’ve been there 17 years, how’s it going and what we should do in terms of additional ideas,” he said in July 2017, according to Woodward. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has also urged the US to stay in Syria, said the US needed to be working toward stabilization in Afghanistan as well.
Under the tenure of Mattis, some of the US policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria could be delegated to his capable hands. With him gone, the policies will be less clear and Trump may take on more responsibility in decision making on these issues.
This is precisely the opposite of what Trump initially wanted to do when he delegated authority and gave generals the decision-making power. This is already reverberating around the Middle East, where adversaries will see this as an opportunity to threaten the US and US allies.
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