Each member of the U.S. president’s cabinet serves at the pleasure of the president and the same is true in the case of the United States Secretary of Defense which position is in the top tier of the Executive Office serving the country’s leader. The other two top tier cabinet positions are, of course, the Secretary of State and the Chief of Staff. All of whom serve at the president’s discretion.
That said, General Jim Mattis has done an excellent job as the U.S. Defense Secretary and there are questions as to why such a capable individual should find it necessary to retire from a position to which he was obviously well-suited. Also, the question exists whether the president influenced that decision or whether General Mattis was fired and the term “retiring” was used to convey proper respect to a long-serving military member who earned every honour he ever received.
Obviously, the president and the secretary had a difference on policy, that goes without saying. But under the U.S. Constitution, a U.S. president can pursue any foreign or domestic policy he chooses and he or she doesn’t need the approval of his cabinet.
(Of course, it’s better if they do approve)
U.S. cabinet officers serve the president, not the other way around. Therefore, in case of a difference of opinion the president wins, every time, and it must always be that way.
Even such notable soldiers as General Douglas MacArthur who tried to bully U.S. president Harry S. Truman into militarily attacking China — thereby dramatically enlarging the Korean War — was finally forced to step down famously saying, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away” find themselves subject to the U.S. president’s discretion by virtue of the laws of the United States and its Constitution.
Still, it could be instructive in some way to examine the reasons behind such events to ascertain whether a systemic problem exists that must be dealt with, or to find whether these events occurred due to some other reason.
Let’s look at the Syrian situation in the context of American military involvement, because in the case of president Trump and secretary Mattis it’s almost surely the issue that divided them:
- Syria has been involved in a civil war since 2011 and was the last country in the region to feel the effects of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
- No country is allowed under international law to intervene militarily in another country’s civil war without being invited by the lawful government of that country. Countries can’t unilaterally insert themselves into the midst of civil wars. That’s black letter international law. It’s 100% non-negotiable.
- Which the Americans did. As did their allies (some European countries).
- Russia and Iran on the other hand were invited by the lawful government of Syria and that invitation was made publicly. It’s a matter of public record.
- The legal exception to involvement by non-invited parties occurs if the UN Security Council approves military actions; Where the UN Security Council votes to apply sanctions or approve military force, military intervention becomes legal under international law. However, the UN Security Council didn’t approve military force by the U.S. and its allies against Syrian government forces or non-government forces (terrorists). Yet, the U.S. and its allies militarily attacked targets in Syria without the proper and legal authorizations required by international law.
- Though such actions clearly broke international law, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad didn’t seem to mind. Yes, he did complain at first, but as soon as the Americans and their European allies lessened their attacks on terrorist targets in Syria, Bashar Al-Assad suddenly stopped complaining. To many people (and it might even hold up in international court if it ever comes to that) this clearly registered as tacit approval for America and her allies to conduct military operations against ISIS inside Syria for the duration of the Syrian civil war.
With me so far? Few people would dispute points 1 through 6 above.
No doubt that U.S. president Trump and U.S. secretary of defense Mattis were 100% aligned in regards to U.S. policy in Syria since the confirmation of General Jim Mattis on January 20, 2017.
Any difference of opinion between the two is therefore recent and easy to discern.
American Involvement in Syria: Part II
Since about November of 2018 it appears that the battle against ISIS is largely won in Syria.
From now on, it’s going to be a mopping-up operation with exponentially increasing chances for American and Russian forces to clash (accidentally or otherwise) in the ever-smaller areas formerly controlled by terrorist groups.
Not only American and Russian of course, many countries operate inside Syria fighting terrorists and de facto assist the Syrian government (even if assisting the Syrian regime isn’t one of their objectives) and some terrorists might decide to meddle with the foreign forces fighting them.
Any individual who feels they have something against America or Europe who happens to have access to a rifle, a rocket launcher, or other weapons system may feel entitled under Jihadi rules to shoot down an American fighter or bomber jet, helicopter, or perhaps take out a number of U.S. soldiers who may be sleeping in a tent or non-hardened building.
For a terrorist, the opportunity to create a war between Russia and America, or between Russia and Europe (however unlikely that may, or may not be) might prove too tempting and numbers of them on multiple occasions might soon decide to employ themselves on suicide missions to accomplish that objective.
‘Targets of Opportunity’ are what every American and European military person will now represent to Jihadis at this stage — whereas prior to November 2018 they were too busy trying to stay alive to get involved in planning traps so that (nominal allies, in Syria, at least) America and Russia might find themselves in a ground or air fight against the other. Such danger that represents!
American Involvement in Syria: Part III
Even after the American troops (numbering only 2000 personnel) leave Syria there are still a number of ways to influence events in that country.
a) Soft Power
b) Hard Power
Soft power is the application of diplomacy. The UN is the most likely place for this to happen and America has a strong presence at the United Nations. At this point in the Syrian civil war, America’s best option is UN-backed diplomacy and its 2nd-best option remains direct diplomacy between the nations that are in some way involved with Syria.
Hard power is the application of military force. The U.S. military is the most powerful on Earth but that doesn’t mean the United States should be bombing just for the sake of bombing.
If there are better options than that, those should take precedence over military actions that could result in the unwanted and unnecessary problems of military conflict happening by accident between the U.S. and Russia, or between the U.S. and Iran (or between the U.S. and any other countries operating in Syria) or between the Americans and the Syrians.
None of that is going to help bring peace in Syria.
A final thought about U.S. Hard Power being applied in Syria following the pullout of America’s 2000-strong ground and air force is that the US Navy can deliver as many missiles as the president chooses to targets in Syria from the Mediterranean Sea, anytime the president wants. This has been done in the past with regards to purported chemical attacks that occurred in Syria and is something the Navy trains for every day of the year. Likewise with the U.S. Air Force, which can deliver as many bombs or missiles to terrorist targets inside Syria as the president chooses.
And none of them are going to accidentally bomb Russian or Syrian government positions due to the prior notification protocols common among the world’s major military forces that operate in conflict zones.
Conducting military operations inside Syria is still against international law (therefore I’m not advocating for such operations!) unless Bashir Al-Assad approves of it in advance (and it’s possible he might need help if he gets surrounded by terrorists again) and it’s still in America’s interests to have the democratically elected Bashir Al-Assad government in charge of Syria vs. any number of shady terrorist groups — but at least the lives of 2000 American troops won’t be unnecessarily at risk.
They don’t mind necessary risk, but they hate unnecessary risk. Wouldn’t you?
“Two Men Look Out Through the Same Bars – One Sees Mud, the Other, Stars”
In the final stage of the Syrian Civil War, U.S. president Trump likely sees a case of diminishing returns in Syria, with a growing threat of accidental conflict with America’s nominal allies (Russia, Syria and even Iran — as far as the Syrian conflict is concerned) He sees the potential for a sudden Jihadi attack comparable to the Marine barracks attack in Beirut (1983) that killed 241 U.S. Marines that could undo the good work done by U.S forces in the country especially if a large number of U.S. troops were to be killed in such an attack whether by design or accident; He sees that Syria’s allies are poised and able to complete the task at their cost in both lives and treasure, and he sees that America isn’t going to gain anything further by staying.
ISIS will be defeated in Syria due in large part due to American involvement and no matter how long America stays it isn’t likely to get more recognition for its work fighting terrorism there than it’s already gotten.
In short, for all the right reasons, president Trump decided that U.S. forces should leave Syria — and U.S. Navy aircraft carriers or U.S. Air Force bombers could still deliver a message to terrorist groups operating inside Syria at a moment’s notice.
And from the perspective of Jim Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, he has resigned for all the right reasons. If you can’t agree on policy (and it is the job of the president to decide policy, not the SecDef) then it’s right to leave. No doubt that General Mattis felt there was more good that American forces could still do inside Syria (even though they weren’t invited and aren’t there legally) and that having U.S. forces on the ground was a stabilizing force in the country. It was that for certain.
But now that Bashar Al-Assad’s tacit approval of unasked-for American ‘assistance’ is almost certainly about to come to an end president Trump has made the right policy move on Syria.
And the president still retains the option of US Navy or Air Force attacks on terrorist targets inside Syria — while removing only the increasingly imperilled ground force option.
‘Timing is everything’ they say.
Written by John Brian Shannon
- A look back at the deadly 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut (abc.com)