Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned Thursday on the heels of President Trump’s plans to withdraw troops from Syria, citing irreconcilable policy differences in a move that took Washington by surprise, according to a CNN report.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense 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 wrote in his letter to the President.
Earlier Thursday, a senior administration official told CNN that Mattis was “vehemently opposed” to the Syria decision and a possible Afghanistan troop withdrawal.
Trump tweeted on Thursday:
“General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my Administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years,” Trump tweeted. “During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting equipment. 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!”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Thursday night that Trump and Mattis were on good terms despite not agreeing on foreign policy and other issues.
“He and the president have a good relationship, but sometimes they disagree,” Sanders said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have a good relationship with somebody. He was laying out the reasons he was stepping down from his post.”
In letter just released by the Department of Defense, Secretary Jim Mattis warns, “We cannot protect our interests … without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
U.S.-backed forces have made steady progress against the Islamic State for several years. Last Friday, they captured the last remaining Islamic State stronghold in eastern Syria, the city of Hajin, likely prompting Trump’s declaration of victory.
“We have won against ISIS, we have beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly,” Trump said in video posted to Twitter Wednesday. “We’ve taken back the land, and now it is time for our troops to come back home.”
Trump and Mattis do not see eye to eye on the issue. Defeating the Islamic State was just one of a three-prong plan Mattis had for Syria that he laid out in August before drawing down U.S. troops in Syria. He said the U.S. must also train local troops who can assume the role of suppressing the militants, and the United Nations peace process must progress toward a resolution in the Syrian civil war.
In addition to Syria, there were tensions between the two men over Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mattis believed the Russian president was trying to undermine NATO and assaulting Western democracies.
“Putin’s actions are designed not to challenge our arms at this point, but to undercut and compromise our belief in our ideals,” Mattis told U.S. Naval War College graduates at a commencement ceremony in June.
But Trump has praised Putin’s leadership skills and recently caused concern among U.S. allies by calling for Russia’s reinstatement in the group of major industrial nations. Russia was expelled from what was then the Group of Eight after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Another point of contention between the two men involved the Iran nuclear deal.
Mattis argued the U.S. should consider staying in the Iran nuclear deal unless Tehran was found not to be abiding by the agreement. Iran was following the pact’s rules, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the use of nuclear energy and has verified Iranian compliance with the accord multiple times since 2015.
Despite his secretary of defense’s position, Trump pulled out of the deal in May, claiming that it had been poorly negotiated during the Obama administration.
Rumors of Mattis leaving have been circulating for months.
In October, Trump appeared on the television news show 60 Minutes, where he told TV anchor Lesley Stahl that though “I like General Mattis,” he believed he knew more about NATO than his defense secretary.
“I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you wanna know the truth,” Trump said. “But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That’s Washington.”
Mattis became secretary of defense shortly after Trump’s inauguration and is one of the longest-serving Cabinet members.
Before that he served 44 years in the Marine Corps and led the Marines and British troops during the bloody Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.
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