The resignation of US defence secretary James Mattis was triggered by a phone conversation between Donald Trump and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in which Trump abruptly decided to upend previous US policy and withdraw troops from Syria, according to new accounts of the call.
Mattis went to see the president on Thursday afternoon in a last-ditch attempt to change the president’s mind, and argue for standing by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have take the lead role in ejecting the Islamic State from its Syrian strongholds.
Mattis had already composed a resignation letter that did not mention the SDF or Syria but repeatedly referred to the importance to US national security of respecting allies, and confronting strategic adversaries.
Trump rebuffed Mattis’s arguments over the course of a 45-minute meeting. Trump had already recorded a video in the White House garden, announcing he was bringing the troops home, and it had been shown to Mattis.
At the end of the meeting Mattis took Trump by surprise by presenting his resignation letter. According to the New York Times, Mattis ordered 50 copies to be made and circulated around the Pentagon on his return to his office.
Accounts in the US and Turkish press of the Friday call between Trump and Erdoğan show the volatile US president complying with the Turkish leader’s demands and taking his own advisers by surprise.
It is the latest example of a pattern in which Trump tends to side with authoritarian foreign leaders, over the advice of US officials.
Trump has also ordered the withdrawal of half the 14,000 US military presence in Afghanistan, but it is the decision over Syria which appears to have precipitated Mattis’s decision to leave office.
“As soon as the US folds its tent and leaves, Turkey will immediately begin an air bombardment followed by a ground attack by the [Ankara-backed] Free Syrian army. Thousands will die, thousands will be displaced and will be given no haven within Syria. They will be turned away at the Turkish border,” said David Phillips, a former senior state department official, and the author of the new book: The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.
“For more than three and a half years, they have been our boots on the ground and were the point of the spear in retaking [the Isis stronghold] Raqqa,” Phillips, now at Columbia University, said. “Who is going to fight for us in the future when we throw our allies under the bus?”
Mattis’s colleagues had previously said he was determined to stay on despite multiple differences with Trump to safeguard the interests of the armed services, and in the words of one former Pentagon employee “serve the constitution”.
According to a version of events in the Associated Press, the US position going into the call was to demand that Turkey stall a planned offensive into Syria aimed at US-backed Kurdish elements of the SDF, which Ankara sees as indistinguishable from the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
“The talking points were very firm,” one of the officials quoted by the Associated Press said. “Everybody said push back and try to offer [Turkey] something that’s a small win, possibly holding territory on the border, something like that.”
Erdoğan responded by saying that Isis had been 99% defeated.
“Why are you still there?” Erdoğan demanded, according to the account.
With the Turkish leader still on the line, Trump asked the same question of his national security adviser, John Bolton, who repeated US policy until then, that the defeat of Isis had to be “enduring”, preventing the possibility of a resurgence.
To the surprise of Bolton and Erdoğan, Trump instantly sided with the Turkish president.
According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, whose account is similar to the Associated Press’s, Trump declared: “OK – do it.” Not hearing an instant response from Bolton, Trump demanded to know whether his national security adviser was still on the line. When Bolton said he was, Trump ordered: “Start the work.”
Bolton and his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, were left to sort out the details.
The Hurriyet report said the initial timetable for US withdrawal was between 30 and 60 days, which was later extended to up to 100 days.
Such an abrupt withdrawal would leave the SDF vulnerable to Turkish attack. Observers said it gave the SDF little choice but to try to reach deal with the Assad regime, in an effort to safeguard some Kurdish autonomy.
Mattis and other US national security officials sought to change Trump’s mind over the weekend, without success. US allies such as the UK and France, who have small special forces contingents in northern Syria engaged in the fight against Isis, were not consulted, and only found out about the policy change on Monday through informal contacts with US officials.
Mattis had begun his tenure at the Pentagon with good relations with Trump, who admired his martial bearing and one of his nicknames, “Mad Dog”.
However, the relationship soured and Mattis resisted several of Trump’s defence policies including the ban on transgender troops, the creation of a space force and the staging of an extravagant military parade in Washington, based on French Bastille Day parades.
Mattis had also restrained Trump from his initial impulse of threatening to leave the Nato alliance if US allies did not spend more on defence. His resignation letter focuses on the US reliance on its alliances for its security.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Mattis said, before making it clear he no longer believed the president shared those convictions.
“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,” he said. The letter offers no words of praise for the president.
Mattis’s departure shocked some of Trump’s most loyal backers in Congress. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, warned the chamber would only confirm a replacement who held the same views as Mattis on the importance of alliances.
Mac Thornberry, the Republican chair of the House armed services committee, expressed regret at Mattis’s departure and said: “Reducing the American presence in Afghanistan and removing our presence in Syria will reverse that progress, encourage our adversaries, and make America less safe.”