The former defense secretary James Mattis has said Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of US troops from the Syria-Turkey border has led to “disarray” in the war-torn territory, increasing the chances of a resurgence of Islamic State militants.
But the retired general passed up an opportunity to directly criticise the president.
The president said it was time to end one of America’s “endless wars” – a sentiment he repeated on Saturday – and fulfil a campaign promise by bringing troops home. He also announced that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, would visit the White House.
On Saturday, airstrikes and shelling continued in Kurdish areas and harrowing scenes among panicked refugees were reported and broadcast worldwide.
CNN reported that earlier this week Gen Mazloum Kobani Abdi, head of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told a senior US diplomat: “You have given up on us. You are leaving us to be slaughtered.”
Also on Saturday, another SDF commander told a press conference: “The protection of Isis prisons will not remain our priority. The defence of our soil will be prioritised if [the] Turkish military continues its attacks.”
Mattis spoke to NBC’s Meet the Press with Chuck Todd in an interview to be broadcast in full on Sunday.
“It’s in a situation of disarray right now,” he said in excerpts released by the broadcaster. “Obviously, the Kurds are adapting to the Turkish attacks. And we’ll have to see if they’re able to maintain the fight against Isis. It’s going to have an impact. The question is, how much?”
Asked if the US would regret Trump’s decision, Mattis said: “We have got to keep the pressure on Isis so they don’t recover.
“We may want a war over. We may even declare it over. You can pull your troops out as President Obama learned the hard way out of Iraq, but the ‘enemy gets the vote’, we say in the military. And in this case, if we don’t keep the pressure on, then Isis will resurge. It’s absolutely a given that they will come back.”
Trump said this week any Isis prisoners escaping from camps guarded by Kurds “will be escaping to Europe”.
He also said the Kurds “didn’t help us in the second world war, they didn’t help us in Normandy, for example”.
Mattis’s apparent disinclination to directly criticise the president’s words and behaviour over Syria – which many usually supportive Republicans in Congress have been perfectly happy to do – is in keeping with his approach since resigning in December 2018.
The retired US Marine Corps general has said he has a “duty of silence” regarding the president he served. That commitment has held despite Mattis having resigned in response to an earlier attempt by Trump to pull US troops from Syria and in protest at his treatment of America’s allies.
In September, Mattis published a memoir, Call Sign Chaos. The book skirted his service in the Trump administration, focusing instead on his career in the US armed forces.