The United States is staging a rapid and complete withdrawal from Syria. From a strategic standpoint, this may make sense. After all, ISIS has lost all of its territory. For Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, however, the withdrawal hints at his waning power within the Trump administration. Mattis was one of Trump’s first appointments and one of the few cabinet-level officials left from the early days of the administration.
While Trump once referred to Mattis as “one of my Generals,” it seems that the president is no longer so chummy with his defense secretary. Former and current administration officials have claimed, on the condition of anonymity, that Mattis had been urging the president to maintain the small troop presence in Syria. It appears that Trump has overruled him.
It’s tempting to ignore the reports of anonymous officials, and it’s understandable if you take the claims with a grain of salt. However, Mattis has long been a proponent of keeping troops in Syria. Just a month ago, Mattis claimed that the United States would be building bases along the Syrian and Turkish borders. Those plans seem to be MIA.
While Trump has been largely complimentary of Mattis, some comments have indicated a growing wariness. Back in October, Trump noted: “I think he’s [Mattis] sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth. But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That’s Washington.”
If the rumors are to be believed, however, Mattis apparently warned the president that pulling out of Syria could lead to more chaos and regional instability. Further, while ISIS no longer holds land, the Pentagon warned as recently as August that as many as 14,500 ISIS fighters remain. It’s likely that some are still scattered and in hiding throughout Syria.
Further, Donald Trump reportedly vetoed Mattis’s choice for the Joint Chiefs of Staff position. Mattis had been urging that Air Force chief of staff Gen. David L. Goldfein be selected, but Trump went with Army chief of staff Gen. Mark A. Milley. Rumors have also been circulating that Mattis is being left out of key meetings and decision-making processes.
On the other hand, Mattis has always made it clear that the United States is only in Syria to combat ISIS. Perhaps with the last ISIS stronghold eradicated, Mattis agrees with the president that now is the time to pull out. Maybe the rumors really are nothing more than rumors.
While Mattis’s stance on the Syria pullout is a bit vague, the position of National Security Adviser John Bolton has been explicit from the get-go: the United States should remain in Syria until Iranian-aligned forces are pushed out. While Russia draws perhaps the most attention for its support of the Assad regime, it’s Iran that’s likely got the most boots on the ground.
Across the Middle East, Muslims are generally divided by Shia and Sunni factions. Iran is a Shia power and Assad is likewise Shia. Many of the rebel groups that opposed him and the majority of the Syrian population is Sunni. Nearby Iraq is majority Shia. Some officials, including Bolton, fear that Iran may use the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to extend their influence across the region.
Iran has been able to use this Sunni-Shia divide to raise militias across the region to fight in Syria. Some analysts have argued that as many as 70,000 troops are under Iran’s command. Bolton is a vocal advocate of regime change in Tehran and wanted to use U.S. troops in Syria to curb Iran’s influence.
It’s highly unlikely that Bolton would have been supportive of withdrawing from Syria. Indeed, he has been a vocal proponent of an American presence in the region precisely to oppose the Iranian regime. Trump’s withdrawal likely signals that the president isn’t heeding Bolton’s words either.