Five days before Donald Trump became president, I reported that U.S. elite troops and commanders were worried that the incoming commander in chief lacked the patience for the Obama Doctrine to work in Syria and Iraq. Now we know the answer: No.
This week, Trump decided he’d seen enough and ordered U.S. troops to quit Syria. The president’s decision to abruptly end the mission was so far afield from the U.S. military’s core beliefs that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis tried to talk him out of it, failed, and surprised the president with an immediate resignation letter from his back pocket.
The truth is Trump never knew what he wanted. He has no strategy or plan for the Middle East. And nobody knows why he made this decision now. Ever since the campaign trail, the brash businessman from New York who loved to armchair-quarterback the White House said he would defeat ISIS better and faster than Obama, but also that he would pull the U.S. out of the wars in the Middle East, and make other countries (presumably like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and European allies in NATO) fend more for themselves. Trump somehow managed to run on a promise of massive intervention and isolationism at the same time. And Americans bought it.
Since he took office, national security leaders have warned the president time and again that he can’t have it both ways. They were able to convince the rookie commander in chief to listen to the generals and not retreat — not from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Korea, or NATO. They held the president in check for 23 months. But in the Oval Office this week, Mattis finally lost. Stephen Miller, the president’s hyper-nationalist adviser, won.
The sad irony is that Mattis was already giving Trump what he wanted. The fights in Iraq and Syria were being conducted a la the Obama Doctrine, which addressed regional problems not with U.S. heavy divisions but with far smaller units of elite troops who recruit, train, and help local forces to fight for themselves and in America’s strategic interests. (Also, generous amounts of airpower.) In short, it’s the special operations forces way, known as “by, with, and through,” and commanders in late 2016 said that it finally was working in Syria and Iraq like in no other place before.
The U.S. found willing and able local fighters in Iraq to build a new and improved Iraqi army and elite counterterrorism forces. In Syria, Kurds and Arabs joined the U.S.-led Syrian Democratic Forces, took back their lands, and today hold about half of Syria free from the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
But by September 2017, U.S. special operations commanders on the ground were worried that their bosses in Washington would throw it all away. The State Department, they feared, would abandon the SDF to placate Turkey, which hates and fears the SDF, in order to safeguard larger U.S. nuclear, geopolitical, and strategic interests. As Defense One’s Gayle Tzemach Lemmon wrote:
“For their part, the U.S. special operators see them as partners who never leave a fight. And the mission, they say, doesn’t cost a lot for all that it offers America. We have a working partner here and that is a rarity in this part of the world.” And they say there is one scenario that could turn the situation from dream to nightmare: the U.S. abandons the Syrian Kurds. “The best way for us to force them back into the extremist camp is to leave them,” the second commander said.
Four months later, the top U.S. commander for the region walked through the streets of Raqqa without body armor to witness women and children returning to rebuild their city of booby-trapped rubble. Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel begged the international community to send nonmilitary help — the city needed clean water and electricity and a little bit of aid to kickstart life and show Syrians and the world that America lives by its word. The U.S. military could provide security overwatch, from a tiny firebase on the edge of the town and from the skies. Just don’t walk away.
At that same moment, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was threatening to kill U.S. troops and SDF fighters holding ground in Northeast Syria. Votel stood his ground, responded that the U.S. wasn’t going anywhere.
For the next year, Lemmon reported on the remarkable awakening of Syrian Kurdish and Arab women, who were imprisoned by ISIS and an archaic patriarchy but now openly lead democratic governing councils, business, and schools, including right in the heart of Raqqa. She also reported that it all could disappear if the outside world didn’t help.
This week, America walked away.
This is not Trump’s decision alone. Americans elected him over the objections of nearly the entire national security community. They elected an outsider to Washington on purpose, thinking someone coming from outside of the Beltway would do better by them, with plenty of good reasons.
Mattis, who represented a bulwark against Trump’s indifference to a bigger picture, only lasted so long. Trump ordered U.S. troops out of Syria reportedly against his and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s advice — and I assure you, against the advice of Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford, who once ran the Afghanistan war, and Votel, both of whom are scheduled to retire next year, and likely CIA’s Director Gina Haspel, if she even got a phone call. Trump already has asked for a drawdown of half the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He’s threatened to upend NATO. He’s threatened to pull troops from South Korea. And in seeking big-headline deals, he’s placated Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, and China’s Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, Kurds in Syria protested the news; and the UK and other allies said they would not follow Trump’s exit — they would stay and fight.
So here we are. The national security community is outraged over the decision, Democrats and Republicans alike. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, known for holding his tongue about Trump, said he hopes the president picks “a leader who shares Secretary Mattis’s understanding” of the world. The House Armed Services Committee’s Republican chairman and Democrat ranking member issued a rare joint statement condemning the Syria pullout.
Only the president’s most extreme “America First”ers like Miller like what they see.
“ISIS is the enemy of Russia, ISIS is the enemy of Assad, ISIS is the enemy of Turkey…Are we supposed to stay in Syria for generation after generation, spilling American blood to fight the enemies of all those countries?” Miller said on CNN. “ISIS has been defeated. But if ISIS wants to retrench and regrow and reorganize, it’s going to be up to those countries to defeat their enemy.”
That’s a stunning and blunt statement. But it’s only a restatement of everything Trump promised he would do, on the campaign trial. The fight against ISIS in Syria was hard enough. The fight to convince Americans what global engagement and military interventions buys them, is proving harder.
It would have helped to have better advocates for American leadership abroad. Jim Mattis nobly tried to keep the military out of this era of hyper-politics, but in doing so he kept himself out of the media and out of the public discourse. He minimized his own power to build a constituency for what he thought the military needed and the security policies America needed, like keeping U.S. troops in Syria instead of abandoning the Middle East to Iran, Russia, and Assad. There’s no reason to think the next defense secretary will share Mattis’s views. There’s every reason to think Trump will pick someone who shares his own views and continue to pull America back from the world stage, just as he promised on the campaign trail and just as he restated he would do, this week.
This is not just on Trump. This is on America.
Jim Mattis is not the problem. You are.