Pentagon chief quits the day after Trump decides to pull U.S. troops out of Syria

U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigned on Thursday, one day after the U.S. President Donald Trump decided to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, Reuters reported

“Because you have a right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” Mattis said in his resignation letter.

One senior U.S. administration officer told Washington Post that the defence secretary resigned during what could be described as a disagreement in the Oval Office on Thursday afternoon, in which Trump rejected Mattis’s suggestion to stand down on the Syria withdrawal.

Trump said on Thursday it should be no surprise he had ordered U.S. troops to leave Syria as he had campaigned for it for years, he said in a tweet.

The withdrawal opens the way for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to fulfil his pledge to launch a new offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in northeast Syria that have led the ground offensive to all-but defeat Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria with the help of U.S. air strikes, trainers and artillery.

The United States is to abandon recently built observation posts on the Turkish-Syrian border before its forces fully withdraw from Syria, the Defence Post said on Wednesday. Mattis ordered the building of observation posts last month to deter Turkey from attacking the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish force that controls the area.

The sudden nature of the decision to withdraw has also evidently caused some confusion in the United States' diplomatic corps: Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who was appointed as the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement this year, has been forced off a scheduled meeting with the United Nations Security Council, NBC News reported.  

Trump’s order to withdraw troops is also expected to mean an end to the U.S. air campaign against Islamic State in Syria, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday. 

“Still, one U.S. official cautioned that a final decision on the air campaign had not yet been made, and did not rule out some kind of support for partners and allies. France, for example, has said it will continue to fight in Syria,” Reuters said. 

During a U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria on Thursday, U.S. diplomat Rodney Hunter, the political coordinator of the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said that the United States was committed to the “permanent destruction” of ISIS in Syria and would keep pushing for the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces in the country.

“Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work. Time to come home & rebuild,” Trump tweeted. 

Trump tweeted on Wednesday that ISIS had been defeated. 

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump said. “Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” he said in a video he posted on Wednesday evening on Twitter. 

Trump’s decision to pull the 2,000 U.S. ground troops out of Syria followed a phone call with Erdoğan on Friday, a U.S. official told Reuters. "Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call,” the official said.

But, during a teleconference call with reporters, another senior official in the Trump administration said that Trump had not discussed with Erdoğan the decision to withdraw troops from Syria, Voice of America Turkish reported

“The president made the decision himself. It was not an issue he discussed with President Erdoğan. He informed Erdoğan about his decision,” the official said. 

U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the YPG, has been a contentious issue between two NATO allies for several years. Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. 

Following Trump’s announcement, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Kurdish forces on the east of the Euphrates in Syria would be buried in the tunnels and trenches that they had dug, Anadolu Agency reported. 

“Whatever they dig, trenches or tunnels … when the time comes they will be buried in the trenches that they dig. Of this there should be no doubt,” Anadolu quoted Akar as saying during a visit to Turkish forces in Doha, Qatar’s capital. 

By announcing the decision to withdraw the U.S. troops in Syria, Trump overruled his generals and military advisers, and plunged his administration’s Middle East strategy into disarray, the New York Times said

Pentagon officials as late as Wednesday were reportedly still trying to convince Trump that such a move would betray Kurdish allies who have fought alongside American troops in Syria and who could find themselves under attack in the military offensive threatened by Turkey, it said.

The Pentagon said in a statement on Wednesday that it would continue working with partners and allies to defeat the ISIS wherever it operated.

Trump’s claim to have defeated ISIS is at odds with the Pentagon’s assessments in August that there were still as many as 14,500 ISIS fighters still in Syria, the Guardian said. 

The U.S. president’s decision also came as a surprise to Britain and France who also have troops in Syria. 

The UK’s junior defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, opposed Trump’s claim that ISIS had been defeated in Syria.

“I strongly disagree. It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” he said in a tweet.

The British government said in a statement that while the global coalition against the Islamic State had made progress, ISIS still remained a threat event without territory.

France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau said on television that French troops would stay in Syria despite Trump’s decision. “For now, of course we are staying in Syria because the fight against Islamic State is essential,” she said. 

“The war against Islamic state has not ended and the Islamic State has not been defeated,” the SDF said in a statement on Wednesday. Any withdrawal would also “create a political and military vacuum in the area, leaving its people between the claws of hostile parties”, it said.

Russia welcomed Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday that the decision was "a milestone story which might evolve from this decision is a real prospect for a political solution,” Russian news agency TASS reported.

During his annual press conference with domestic and foreign media on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he agreed with Trump that ISIS had been defeated. "Donald is right and I agree with him," Putin said.

Putin also said that Moscow had not noted any signs of a U.S. withdrawal, and that the United States had many times said it was leaving Afghanistan, but still retained a presence there. 

Citing local sources, Anadolu also reported that some U.S. trucks carrying weapons to YPG forces had started leaving Syria. 

Max Hoffman, a national security expert at the U.S. think tank Center for American Progress told Voice of America that the United State’s decision to withdraw its forces from Syria would harm Turkey’s national security in the long run. 

As a result of the U.S. withdrawal, the SDF would have to make a deal with the Syrian President Bashar  Assad, he said. “Damascus will gain control in the eastern part of the country to a certain extent. Damascus will get stronger and will try to use Kurdish militants to take revenge from Turkey,” he said. 

With his decision, Trump also aborted a positive momentum in the Middle East, U.S. journalist David Ignatius said.

“Not only was the Islamic State almost extinguished, but U.S. power was creating conditions for future stability. The new Iraqi government was eager to be a partner; Iran was realising it had overreached in Syria; Sunni Arab allies such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates wanted to help contain Turkish power and create a more stable Syrian state,” Ignatius said. 

Trump chose to cede power in northern Syria to Turkey and abandoned a Syrian Kurdish ally, according to Ignatius. 

“America was going to have to break the Kurds' hearts eventually (as we seem to with so many of our brave allies). But not now, not when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was threatening an invasion, trying to jawbone America into abandoning its allies. This kind of bullying shouldn't work against a superpower. But sadly, it just did, with lasting cost to American credibility,” he said.