Analysis

After Mattis Quits, Israel Loses an Island of Sanity in the Roiling Trump Administration

The defense secretary’s instructive resignation letter has nothing kind to say about the man who appointed him. For Israel, Mattis’ imminent exit and the Syria pullout are worrying developments

U.S. President Donald Trump walks in with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as they arrive at the multilateral meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.
\ POOL New/ REUTERS

The resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reflects turmoil that is exceptional even in the roller coaster ride known as the Trump administration.

Mattis was seen, including by his many acquaintances in Israel’s defense establishment, as an island of sanity and stability in that roiling sea. Midway through the term, Donald Trump’s administration mirrors the president: capricious, struggling to weigh complex considerations and as a result unpredictable and dangerous to himself and his surroundings.

The resignation letter, a little over a page long, that Mattis sent to the president is instructive. In it, Mattis clarifies to Trump, as one would explain to a slow child, the principles that have guided U.S. policy in recent decades: The American duty to advance a democratic international order, its important allies and its strategic opponents (China and Russia).

Mattis concludes: You have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours. The letter contains not a single kind word for the man who appointed him and it’s hard to believe that it was due to a sudden loss of good manners on the part of Mattis.

>> Trump’s Syria withdrawal and Mattis’ resignation startle Israel – and undercut Netanyahu | Analysis ■ How Trump told Erdogan U.S. was leaving Syria ■ Will Turkey crush Syrian Kurds' secular utopia? ■ Israel left with false Russian promises, a volatile Trump

The immediate catalyst for Mattis’ resignation was Trump’s decision, issued Wednesday, to withdraw American troops from Syria, followed by the announcement of a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. In both cases, the president is returning to his campaign promises and isolationist messages from more than two years ago.

The more Trump frees himself of his fear of his advisers — and the advisers themselves — the more he follows the instincts he so prides himself on.

Those instincts suit the suspicions of some of his supporters, to whom the U.S. pretension to serve as the world’s policeman (especially in the days of presidents Clinton and Bush; to a lesser degree in the days of Obama, as well) was a dangerous and unnecessary waste of money.

The decision to pull out of Syria probably had more immediate political reasons. The investigations of the president are advancing. Next month an adversarial U.S. House of Representatives will be sworn in, making it more difficult for Trump to effect changes in domestic policy. He needed a quick move to distract and satisfy his base.

But it’s clear they are the only ones who will be pleased. A brief appearance before the press, in which Trump announced that the Islamic State organization was defeated, pointed to the sky and declared that the soldiers who died in battle would be pleased to hear the news of the retreat from Syria, raised many concerns.

Even more worrisome was a detailed report by The Associated Press, according to which Trump decided to pull out of Syria after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told him during a telephone conversation that the Islamic State militants had been removed from 99 percent of the territory they had held.

U.S. media outlets have named nearly 40 top administration officials who have resigned since Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, an unprecedented figure. Without Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it seems the president will lose the remainder of the checks and balances that kept him in line.

Trump has expressed doubts in the past concerning America’s membership in NATO and military presence in South Korea and Japan. In the next two years, there may be new surprises.

Russia realizes its star has risen

Close to Israel, the withdrawal from Syria and Mattis’ resignation signal a weakening of U.S. influence in the Middle East.

They also render somewhat ridiculous the flattery Israeli politicians and media personalities showered on Trump after his retaliatory attack in Syria, withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Instead of putting an emphasis with the Americans on Syria, we insisted on the embassy move,” a former head of Israel’s National Security Council said Thursday.

“God only knows what how we benefited from that move,” Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland said in an interview Israel’s 103 FM radio station.

At the same time, Russia understands more clearly now that its position in the Middle East has improved. The Americans will not be quick to confront it in regard to Syria in the future. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right to cultivate ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the start of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria, in September 2015. Those ties have since brought Israel considerable advantages.

Still, it was unrealistic to think Netanyahu could manipulate the superpowers to his will. Only his foolish admirers believed that. For Trump, the personal interest (which he may perceive as the American interest) is growing now. Putin might even allow a limited confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria, as long as that strengthens Russia’s position as the only possible mediator between the two parties and does not pose an immediate danger to Putin’s main project in the region — preserving Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The number of U.S. troops in Syria was relatively small, at 2,000, and recently it was reported that the administration sought to double that amount. But Trump also announced the end of the campaign against the Islamic State. That presumably means an end to air attacks in Syria — and, even more important for Israel, a retreat from the American enclave surrounding al-Tanf, near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan, frees the obstruction to Iranian traffic along the inland corridor between Tehran and Beirut.

If Syria indeed becomes the playing field of a single superpower, this is a worrying turnaround for Jerusalem. Putin is far from being an Israel-sympathizing mediator, and Tehran might interpret the U.S. pullout and Mattis’ resignation as encouraging developments that will increase its freedom to act in the area. Indirectly, even if Moscow doesn’t wish for it, the danger of war in the north could increase in 2019.

The danger does not stop there. Any comparison between Trump and Netanyahu is flawed; the prime minister is far more experienced, responsible and cautious than the U.S. president on security issues. But 2019 is an election year for Israel; before or during the campaign, the fate of the criminal investigations against Netanyahu will be decided.

Against the backdrop of a pending election and the disintegrating government coalition, Israel’s moves against Palestinians — from the demolition of terrorists’ homes to dangerous draft laws allowing the displacement of their families — are becoming more extreme. While Netanyahu is staving off a military confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip as best he can, the Israeli measures in the West Bank could eventually set off unrest in parts that are under the control of the Palestinian Authority, which continues reluctantly to maintain security coordination with Israel.