US defence secretary resigns after Syria exit

Mattis’ decision came hours after he met Trump in the White House and tried – but failed – to convince the president not to withdraw the approximately 2,000 US troops from north-eastern Syria, according to news reports.
Friday 21/12/2018
US Defense Secretary James Mattis at aWhite House event. (Reuters)
Not ‘aligned’. US Defense Secretary James Mattis at aWhite House event. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON – US Defence Secretary James Mattis abruptly quit on December 20, writing a blistering resignation letter that was widely seen as a rebuke of President Donald Trump and his sudden decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.

Mattis’ resignation shocked Washington, which was already reeling from Trump’s abrupt announcement on December 19 that the US military was pulling out of Syria because it had “beaten” the Islamic State (ISIS).

Members of the US Congress, including many of Trump’s close allies, assailed the move, saying ISIS remains a threat and that the United States was abandoning and insulting key allies in Syria such as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Mattis’ resignation letter echoed that concern with several references to treating allies with respect. “While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies,” Mattis wrote in his eight-paragraph letter addressed to Trump.

Mattis also implicitly assailed Trump for criticising the NATO alliance and added: “Because you have the right to have a secretary of defence 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’ resignation takes effect February 28.

Trump had pre-empted Mattis, writing on Twitter earlier in the day that the former Marine Corps four-star general was “retiring.”

“During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting equipment,” Trump wrote. “General Mattis was a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations. A new Secretary of Defense will be named shortly. I greatly thank Jim for his service!”

Part of US Defense Secretary James Mattis's resignation letter. (Reuters)
Part of US Defense Secretary James Mattis's resignation letter. (Reuters)

Mattis, who is 68, is not retiring but resigning. He retired from the US military in 2013 after 44 years in the Marine Corps.

Mattis’ decision came hours after he met Trump in the White House and tried – but failed – to convince the president not to withdraw the approximately 2,000 US troops in north-eastern Syria, according to news reports.

Mattis had been defence secretary since the day Trump took office and was widely respected throughout Washington as an experienced and steady voice who moderated Trump’s impulses and inexperience with foreign and military affairs. Mattis had served as a top military commander under President Barack Obama before retiring from the military. The US Senate confirmed Mattis as Trump’s defence secretary by a vote of 98-1.

Mattis’ resignation amplified the expressions of concern that have resounded through Washington over the past 24 hours.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and ally of Trump, wrote on Twitter that Mattis’ resignation “makes it abundantly clear that we are headed toward a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower adversaries.”

Bill Kristol, a Republican and prominent conservative commentator, wrote on Twitter: “Never been more alarmed for the nation since coming to [Washington] D.C. over three decades ago.”

Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, wrote on Twitter: “This is scary. Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration. As we’ve seen with the President’s haphazard approach to Syria, our national defence is too important to be subjected to the President’s erratic whims.”

The Trump presidency has experienced extraordinary turnover since he took office in January 2017. In the past two weeks alone, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced they were leaving, weeks after the announced departures of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Other resignations this year include Rex Tillerson as secretary of State, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency and David Shulkin as secretary of Veterans Affairs.