National Security

U.S. Departs Syria, Mattis Departs Pentagon

One withdrawal created the Islamic State; the other was the result of defeating it.

Michael Swartz · Dec. 21, 2018

In a decision that countered the recommendations of some of his advisers and congressional allies, Commander in Chief Donald Trump did what he said he was going to do for the last two years — withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. According to the president, “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”

“We have won against ISIS,” he added, “We’ve beaten them and beaten them badly.” In doing so, President Trump hung his “mission accomplished” banner in Syria. That not only brought out the congressional critics but prompted the anticipated resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the most respected of Trump’s cabinet members — a man whose distinguished service to our nation qualified his standing as a force for stability in matters of national security.

Congressional hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham, referring to Barack Obama’s unilateral political move of withdrawing from Iraq, warned, “I don’t think General Trump is going to do any better than General Obama.” Echoing Graham, fellow Sen. Marco Rubio called the withdrawal a “colossal” mistake that has “basically turned the country over to Russia and to an even greater extent, Iran.”

There are some comparisons but also major differences. The Syria withdrawal involves about 2,000 U.S. personnel who are largely there in advisory and training roles. Obama’s politically motivated actions in Iraq required withdrawing tens of thousands of troops who were the last line of defense against the emergence of ISIS. Trump also lacks constitutional authority to remain in Syria. More on that in a minute.

Graham’s caution that premature departure from Syria could yield undesirable consequences is noted. But Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq enabled the rise of the Islamic State from “JV team” to caliphate and created an epic humanitarian crisis. That caliphate may be no more, but a small portion of Syria remains under ISIS control, and as Syrian government troops clash with insurgents trying to overthrow the Assad regime, ISIS could return to fill in the void. But President Trump was adamant about making the move earlier this year and now it will be done. “Time for others to finally fight,” said the president.

One of those “others” — and among the few applauding Trump’s decision — is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who now has an unfettered hand with which to prop up Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. “If the United States decided to withdraw its force, then this would be right,” said the Russian leader, who claimed the United States was interfering in his efforts to bring a political solution to the Syrian problem.

The stance makes Putin a strange bedfellow with some GOP lawmakers. Sen. Rand Paul, who declared, “I am happy to see a President who can declare victory and bring our troops out of a war. It’s been a long time since that has happened,” also remarked that Trump was simply making good on a campaign promise. Meanwhile, fellow Sen. Mike Lee gently chided Graham, insisting that this Syrian withdrawal is not just “the opposite of an Obama decision,” but it reverses an unauthorized action. “Congress has never declared war, or authorized the use of military force in Syria,” Lee correctly noted. “We shouldn’t be there anyway.”

Lee’s view was echoed by National Review’s David French, a veteran of Iraq. However, while French argues that the 2002 AUMF often used as justification for forays into the Middle East “is not a catch-all provision designed to authorize force against any jihadist force, anywhere, for all time,” French and his NR cohorts would have preferred that Trump secure permission from Congress to remain in Syria rather than leave the situation for Russia and other outside players to resolve.

Yet Syria may be the tip of the iceberg. A “major withdrawal” of troops from Afghanistan — our longest battle of the Long War — may also be in the offing.

Which brings us to the release of Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s retirement letter. His February departure was deemed “sudden” in media reports but wasn’t unexpected by insiders, who noted it had been “on the board” for two months. Whatever the case, the SecDef’s sentiment — “because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours … I believe it is right for me to step down from my position” — showed obvious frustration with the president. “This isn’t just retiring. This is quitting in protest,” opined frequent Trump critic Susan Wright.

Perhaps. Or perhaps as with most things Trump, some of the “chaos” is actually planned.

One year hence, at which time our nation will be heading into a presidential election year, the American defense landscape could be radically different than the one we’ve come to accept for the last several years. A new secretary of defense will be overseeing a military that’s focused less on directly fighting the Long War and perhaps retrenched away from the Middle East for the first time in decades. In any case, the effects of Trump’s announcements will continue long after he leaves office.

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