President Trump issued another bombshell announcement on Thursday evening, tweeting the news that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will leave his post in February. The former Marine general was once one of Trump’s closest and most trusted advisers, but his influence had steadily waned in recent months. The relationship apparently collapsed after Trump’s snap decision on Wednesday to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, a move Mattis vehemently opposed. Mattis’ resignation letter was packed with implicit criticism of Trump’s policies. He emphasized the need to be “resolute and unambiguous in our approach” with authoritarian states like China and Russia and lavished praise on the international allies Trump has repeatedly attacked. As my colleagues wrote, Mattis was considered “a bulwark against Trump’s isolationist and more extreme impulses” by much of official Washington. His resignation quickly sent many lawmakers, analysts and even anonymous administration officials into an ominous funk. “Having Mattis there gave all of us a great deal more comfort than we have now,” said retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to The Post. “He was the steadiest hand in the Cabinet, and we’ve all slept better and felt better that he was there.” When President Trump announced Wednesday that he was pulling U.S. forces out of Syria, it came as a shock to much of Washington. Key U.S. military officials reportedly felt hoodwinked by the drastic shift in policy; Trump’s secretary of defense quit. Counterterrorism experts warned that a departure could lead to an Islamic State resurgence. Critics in the foreign-policy community declared that Trump was giving “a Christmas gift to our enemies” – namely Russia and Iran, whose influence the American presence in Syria was supposed to check. In a Thursday morning tweet storm, however, Trump swatted away such arguments. Rather than Washington being “the policeman of the Middle East,” he said, Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime could deal with jihadists and other enemies on their own. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced his agreement. But there’s another power that could benefit even more from Trump’s strategic impatience: Turkey. If the United States pulls out of Syria and – as has been reported – ceases airstrikes against militant groups there, it will effectively abandon the Syrian Democratic Forces, the alliance of militias that is Washington’s proxy on the ground. The SDF now controls virtually all of northeastern Syria, something that has long infuriated Turkey: The main outfit within the alliance is the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish force with links to an outlawed Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey. Earlier this year, the Turkish military invaded Syria, driving the YPG out of the country’s northwest. The Trump administration acquiesced; American units that once conducted joint patrols with SDF units began working with Turkish proxies. If Trump pulls out completely, expect Ankara to press its advantage. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar threatened as much on Thursday, saying his government was preparing for an offensive to bury the YPG and its allies “in their trenches.” Syrian Kurds must now balance the tricky fight against the Islamic State with this new existential threat. “So far, our forces are still fighting these battles against terrorism,” said Mostapha Bali, an SDF spokesman, to the New York Times. “We will do all that we can do to continue the battle, but the U.S. decision was unfortunate and unexpected.” Trump’s decision may have been spurred on directly by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As my colleague Karen DeYoung reported, Trump made the determination to draw the United States out of Syria after a Friday phone call with his Turkish counterpart. “Officials familiar with the Friday call said that Erdogan, among other things, had stressed to Trump that the Syrian Kurds were terrorists – allied with Kurdish separatists in his own country – and asked why the United States was supporting them rather than its NATO ally,” wrote DeYoung. “He noted that the Islamic State had been vanquished and questioned the need for an ongoing U.S. troop presence, saying that Turkish troops already massed on the Syrian border could handle any problem there.” Trump, who campaigned on bringing American troops home, was apparently all too eager to follow Erdogan’s advice. “Trump has in effect switched horses from the Kurds to their arch-foe the Turks,” wrote the Guardian’s Martin Chulov. “And in doing so, he has doubled down on a new phase in the regional war, the essence of which is letting ISIS off the hook in order to take on a more pressing enemy.” Now attention shifts to what form Turkey’s onslaught will take, whether a small operation to create a new buffer zone in Syria or a campaign to eliminate the YPG altogether. This marks a huge turn in Ankara’s fortunes. Over the course of the war in Syria, Turkey has been both a clumsy meddler and calamitous bystander. Erdogan was once bent on the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and tacitly enabled support for rebel militias and jihadist groups fighting Assad’s regime. Blowback came in the form of terrorist attacks on Turkish soil and millions of desperate Syrian refugees crossing the border in search of sanctuary. Moscow’s 2015 intervention in the war dashed whatever hopes Ankara had of guiding its endgame. Erdogan has since come to terms with Assad remaining in power. And now, argues Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he may have secured a more influential place at the table as Assad tightens his control. “Turkey is a big winner,” Cagaptay told Today’s WorldView. “Erdogan will weaken and pressure the YPG and then allow Assad to gobble it up.” Alternatively, the Syrian Kurds may now make common cause with the Assad regime, shelving their aspirations for autonomy in return for a patron who might shield them from destruction. The Trump administration has already signaled its apathy if the Kurds choose that path: On Monday, the U.S. envoy to Syria flatly declared that Washington will not have “permanent relationships with substate entities.” While many in Washington lament yet another American “betrayal” of Kurds in the Middle East, aid groups have other concerns. They worry that an intense Turkish offensive in an area already scarred by war could spark a new humanitarian crisis. “Families are struggling to get their lives back on track and many are still reliant on vital aid,” said Mark Schnellbaecher, Middle East regional director of the International Rescue Committee, to my colleagues. “The major powers involved in Syria must consider the humanitarian consequences of all planning decisions.” If Trump did consider these implications before announcing his withdrawal, he certainly hasn’t shown it. In neighboring Iraq, Trump’s withdrawal announcement rang alarms and emboldened pro-Iran factions. My colleague Tamer El-Ghobashy reports: “Opponents and supporters of U.S. troops in Iraq have been quietly weighing the prospect of another American pullout from a country that has seen varying levels of U.S. military presence since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. “Trump has given no signals on plans for the military in Iraq. But the U.S. armed forces are much more enmeshed in Iraq as partners with elite military units. “Any sweeping Pentagon disengagement would carry the potential for major changes in how Iraq’s security forces are run and in their capacities to face any possible resurgence by the Islamic State or other threats. “As in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq has been driven from its strongholds. But in contrast to Syria, the influence of Iranian-allied groups runs even deeper through Iraq’s political and security arenas – an argument raised by supporters of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. “’There is deep worry among Iraqi military officers, who see the Pentagon as stable but the White House as unpredictable,’ said a Western diplomat based in Baghdad whose country is involved in the U.S.-led coalition opposing the Islamic State. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with Iraqi officials.” o Trump wants to quit more than Syria. The Post reports the president is also planning a significant drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, another decision opposed by Mattis. From my colleagues: “President Trump has directed the Pentagon to come up with a plan to withdraw nearly half of the more than 14,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan, U.S. officials said Thursday, a move that many of Trump’s senior advisers and military officials have warned will plunge the country further into chaos… “The Afghanistan directive also comes as the United States attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, potentially undercutting leverage that American diplomats have. It marks a significant departure from Trump’s August 2017 decision to slightly increase the number of U.S. troops there and keep them in place with conditions on the ground dictating withdrawal… “The news, first reported Thursday by the Wall Street Journal, is certain to worry senior officials in Afghanistan, who already are battling deteriorating security in the country despite the existing U.S. military presence there. And it will be greeted wearily by many senior U.S. military officers, who have launched more airstrikes in Afghanistan this year than in any during the 17-year-old war, the longest in American history.” o Meanwhile, the U.S. federal government veered toward another shutdown as Trump said he would not sign a spending deal that left out funding for his border wall. From my colleagues: “Trump’s comments on Thursday completely overturned the plan GOP leaders were patching together earlier in the day as one of their final acts in the House majority. With no other viable options available, they had hoped to pass a short-term spending bill that would avert a government shutdown set to start just days before Christmas. “Many lawmakers had expected Trump to grudgingly accept the stopgap measure with Republicans about to lose their majority in the House, and his rejection set off a chaotic day in the Capitol. “House Republican leaders hurried to appease the president, pulling together a bill that would keep the government funded through Feb. 8 while also allocating $5.7 billion for the border wall. The House bill also included nearly $8 billion for disaster relief for hurricanes and wildfires. “The legislation passed the House on a near-party-line vote of 217 to 185 Thursday night, over strident objections from Democrats who criticized the wall as immoral and ineffective and declared the legislation dead on arrival in the Senate. No Democrats voted for the House measure, and eight Republicans voted against it. “But barely 24 hours away from a shutdown set to start at the end of Friday, the House vote only hardened Washington’s budget impasse: Democrats have the Senate votes to block any bill that includes funding for Trump’s wall, and Trump says he’ll veto any bill that doesn’t.” More meddling Western officials say Russia’s goal in trying to influence other countries’ politics is to undermine faith in democracy. On that score, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday effectively declared mission accomplished. His main target was Britain, where politicians are locked in a bitter struggle over how – and whether – to implement the result of the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. Britain is scheduled to leave the E.U. in March, the first country to exit the bloc. But with the British Parliament at an impasse over the divorce deal and as the economic cost of Brexit is becoming clear, calls for a second referendum that would allow the British people to reverse their decision are growing louder. In his annual news conference on Thursday, Putin made it clear where he stood: Brexit means Brexit. British Prime Minister Theresa May “must fulfill the will of the people that was stated at the referendum – otherwise, it’s no referendum at all,” Putin said. He returned to the subject unprompted later on in his news conference. Asked by a state television talk show host about the conflict with the West, Putin said the real problem lies in the “tectonic changes” occurring within it – an emerging crisis of democracy. “Or in Britain,” he said, “Brexit passed, and no one wants to implement it. They’re not accepting the results of elections. Democratic procedures are being weakened; they’re being destroyed.” Putin’s insistence that the British government needed to get Brexit done with was noteworthy because the Kremlin has been accused of backing the “Leave” campaign in the run-up to the 2016 vote. Parliamentary investigators in Britain, for instance, have probed one major Leave campaign funder’s dealings with the Russian ambassador in London. Russia denies any interference in the referendum campaign, just as it denies helping to elect President Trump in 2016. But in both cases, Western officials say, Russia threw its lot behind campaigns critical of the established Western world order. Putin’s comments came as May continued to struggle to win support for her unpopular Brexit agreement with the E.U., even though Britain is set to leave the bloc in less than 100 days. May has repeatedly ruled out a second referendum. A do-over, she said, would “break faith with the British people.” But members of her own cabinet have left the door ajar. – Anton Troianovski and Karla Adam Published in Daily Times, December 22nd 2018.