A Win (Sort of) for Mattis on Syria

Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops vindicates the Pentagon’s strategy on ISIS.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis listens during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on the Department of Defense on Capitol Hill May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis listens during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on the Department of Defense on Capitol Hill May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis listens during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on the Department of Defense on Capitol Hill May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

In the war of wills between U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s decision to draw down all U.S. troops in Syria is a sign the pendulum is swinging in Mattis’s direction.

The abrupt decision provoked outrage from Syria experts and lawmakers, and it reportedly surprised top U.S. military commanders. But while a rapid drawdown is likely not what Mattis advocated for, the withdrawal decision itself is seen as a vindication of the Defense Department’s campaign against the Islamic State and a rebuke of Bolton’s plan to keep troops in Syria in order to counter Iran.

“The decision demonstrates that there has been real progress on the objectives that Secretary Mattis outlined. The administration set out to destroy ISIS and with Secretary Mattis’s strategy the physical caliphate has been decimated,” a senior U.S. administration official told Foreign Policy. “The coalition to defeat ISIS globally will remain intact.”

In the war of wills between U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s decision to draw down all U.S. troops in Syria is a sign the pendulum is swinging in Mattis’s direction.

The abrupt decision provoked outrage from Syria experts and lawmakers, and it reportedly surprised top U.S. military commanders. But while a rapid drawdown is likely not what Mattis advocated for, the withdrawal decision itself is seen as a vindication of the Defense Department’s campaign against the Islamic State and a rebuke of Bolton’s plan to keep troops in Syria in order to counter Iran.

“The decision demonstrates that there has been real progress on the objectives that Secretary Mattis outlined. The administration set out to destroy ISIS and with Secretary Mattis’s strategy the physical caliphate has been decimated,” a senior U.S. administration official told Foreign Policy. “The coalition to defeat ISIS globally will remain intact.”

Mattis was informed of the president’s decision last week and at that point began setting plans in motion for the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria to come home, the official said. The drawdown will be done in a “deliberate fashion working alongside our allies and partners in the region” over the next several weeks to ensure their safety, the official said.

U.S.-backed forces have made steady progress against the Islamic State for several years. Last Friday, they captured the last remaining Islamic State stronghold in eastern Syria, the city of Hajin, likely prompting Trump’s declaration of victory.

“We have won against ISIS, we have beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly,” Trump said in video posted to Twitter on Dec. 19. “We’ve taken back the land, and now it is time for our troops to come back home.”

To be sure, Trump and Mattis are not in lockstep on the issue. In fact, defeating the Islamic State was just one of three criteria the defense secretary laid out in August to be met before drawing down U.S. troops in Syria. He said at the time that the United States must also train local troops who can assume the role of suppressing the militants, and the United Nations peace process must progress toward a resolution in the Syrian civil war.

“I don’t think anyone in the administration looks at Syria and says, ‘Let’s pull the plug with no notice, with no consultation with allies and no evaluation of what the consequences will be for Iran, for Syria, for Turkey, for Iraq,’” said Kori Schacke, the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

But the silver lining for Mattis is political. Trump’s decision is a strong public rejection of the more aggressive military strategy against Iran—a strategy that Bolton has advocated. The national security advisor said in September that U.S. troops would remain in Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also advocated a tougher line on Iran. But Mattis has long maintained that the United States is in Syria for one reason only: to ensure the lasting defeat of the Islamic State.

The decision seemed to take more hawkish members of the administration by surprise. Just a day before the move was made public, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters that U.S. forces were there “to ensure the enduring defeat of the Islamic State. We’ve made significant progress recently in the campaign, but the job is not yet done.”

And last week Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy for the global anti-Islamic State coalition, said: “It’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate.”

A spokesperson for the National Security Council would not comment on when Bolton was made aware of the decision.

“The mission undertaken by U.S. forces and our allies to destroy the supposed territorial caliphate within Syria and Iraq is complete,” a senior administration official told FP. “The President has long indicated his desire to bring U.S. troops home after the completion of this phase of the campaign against ISIS.”

Some Syria watchers have criticized the decision as hasty and reckless, arguing that a withdrawal leaves the country to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, and betrays U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, who have been doing the bulk of the fighting on the ground.

Indeed, Putin on Thursday applauded Trump for the move, although he expressed skepticism that the United States would follow through on the president’s pronouncement.

Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy who was Mattis’s first choice for deputy defense secretary (but ultimately turned him down), said the decision surprised U.S. allies. The British and French militaries, in particular, have been major players in the Syria fight.

“This is Trump at his most reckless,” Flournoy said. “Yes, do we eventually want to draw down in Syria? Of course. But we want to do it after we’ve put a plan for our partners in place.”

The partners “feel surprised, abandoned, un-consulted, and disrespected after they’ve had people injured and died in the mission,” she said.

U.K. Defense Minister Gavin Williamson called the advance through Hajin “a huge milestone” that shows the Islamic State is “being pushed further back into the shadows.” But he cautioned that “much hard work still lies ahead to ensure we win the war.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

More from Foreign Policy

Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan
Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan

Beijing’s Taiwan Aggression Has Backfired in Tokyo

Military exercises have stiffened Japanese resolve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

How to Take Down a Tyrant

Three steps for exerting maximum economic pressure on Putin.

A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.

Why Doesn’t China Invade Taiwan?

Despite Beijing’s rhetoric, a full-scale invasion remains a risky endeavor—and officials think the island can be coerced into reunification.

Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.
Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.

Russia’s Brutal Honesty Has Destroyed the West’s Appeasers

Yet plenty of Western intellectuals and politicians still ignore what Moscow is saying loud and clear.