President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that he was replacing James Mattis as secretary of defence two months earlier than had been expected, amid what officials said was anger at the general’s resignation letter and the attention it had received.
Mr Trump’s new appointment, the current deputy secretary of defence, Patrick Shanahan, will begin work on January, pushing out his boss from the post he was due to hold until the end of February.
Though Mr Shanahan’s appointment had been widely predicted, it had not been expected so suddenly.
It effectively means General Mattis, who wrote a scathing resignation letter condemning the US leader’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria and his disrespectful handling of allies, may not even return to the Pentagon to clear his desk.
A senior White House official said that Mr Trump was irked by the attention given to Gen. Mattis’ rebuke of his foreign policy.
“He just wants a smooth, more quick transition and felt that dragging it out for a couple of months is not good,” the official told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Pentagon officials had previously insisted Gen. Mattis would stay through February, when he would attend a NATO defence ministers meeting.
Tweeting the announcement from the White House on Sunday, Mr Trump wrote: “I am pleased to announce that our very talented Deputy Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, will assume the title of Acting Secretary of Defense starting January 1, 2019. Patrick has a long list of accomplishments while serving as Deputy, & previously Boeing. He will be great!”
It was unclear whether Gen Mattis had been informed prior to the announcement.
Minutes later, further questions were raised as the president went on to appear to link the Syria withdrawal to expanding trade deals with Turkey – just as Turkish troops began to mobilise on the Syrian border.
Mr Trump wrote: “I just had a long and productive call with President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey. We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of US troops from the area. After many years they are coming home. We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.”
Last week, Gen. Mattis, a respected military leader who served under both Barack Obama and George Bush, infuriated Mr Trump with an excoriating resignation letter in which he attacked his unilateral decision to withdraw troops from Syria and his lack of respect for America’s allies. Brett McGurk, the US ISIS envoy, also announced he was quitting.
But Mr Trump’s announcement was welcomed by Ankara, which had long been angered by the Western alliance with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against Isil.
Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish militia as an extension of the insurgency within its territory and has vowed to dislodge it fighters from the Syrian border region.
As the news that the general was being forced out broke, it was reported that Turkey had begun sending military reinforcements to the Syrian border – the fallout from America’s withdrawal announcement apparently starting to take effect.
According to the Turkish news station TRT, which broadcast footage, soldiers were heading to the town of Manbij, an area controlled by Kurdish forces.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed the movement.
“Tens of soldiers and more than 50 military gears including trucks and armoured personnel carriers as well as other carriers that carry armoured vehicles in addition to other material and ammunition where it headed to the countryside of Manbij area, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the SOHR.
“Around 35 tanks and other heavy weapons, carried aboard tank carriers, crossed the Jarablus border crossing in the early evening.”
Although the Americans have issued no timeline for withdrawal, it emerged on Friday that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had assured Mr Trump that he would finish off the job of eradicating ISIS in Syria during a high-stakes phone call.
During that same call, the US leader reportedly said: “You know what? It’s yours. I’m leaving.”
The president has since faced intense criticism at home this past week and yesterday there appeared to be no sign of that fading.
Speaking to CNN, Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said: “We’re in the final stages, ISIS is now concentrated in the Euphrates river valley, we’re just a few months away from finishing something we started where we would annihilate large numbers of ISIS members, and we stopped. I’m just saddened for our country.”
Exiled Turkish opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri urged the US to coordinate its pull-out with rebel groups.
“”An uncoordinated US withdrawal may leave a void that would be filled by Daesh (Isil), the Syrian regime or Iranian militias,” Mr Hariri warned on Twitter.