Gareth Porter, in an article published in the American Conservative, definitively shows that Trump's Dec. 19 announcement of the US withdrawal from Syria was, in fact, the end of a fight of at least a year, between Trump on the one side and his national security team, lead by Mattis and Dunford on the other. Published accounts of the policy process over the past year "show that senior national security officials and self-interested institutions have been playing a complicated political game for months aimed at keeping Trump from wavering on our indefinite presence on the ground in Syria," Porter writes. "The entire episode thus represents a new variant of a familiar pattern dating back to Vietnam in which national security advisors put pressure on reluctant presidents to go along with existing or proposed military deployments in a war zone. The difference here is that Trump, by publicly choosing a different policy, has blown up their transparent schemes and offered the country a new course, one that does not involve a permanent war state."
Porter cites an April 2018 Associated Press account of an NSC meeting at which Trump's impatience with his national security team boiled over. At that meeting, Trump ordered them unequivocally to accept a fundamentally different Syria deployment policy. Instead, they framed the options as a binary choice—either an immediate pullout or an indefinite presence in order to ensure the complete and permanent defeat of Islamic State. Mattis and Dunford, Porter continues, were consciously exploiting Trump's own defensiveness about a timeline–he had attacked Obama during the 2016 campaign for imposing a timeline in Afghanistan–"to press ahead with their own strategy unless and until Trump publicly called them on it."
"The Syria withdrawal affair is a dramatic illustration of the fundamental quandary of the Trump presidency in regard to ending the state of permanent war that previous administrations created. Although a solid majority of Americans want to rein in U.S. military deployments in the Middle East and Africa, Trump's national security team is committed to doing the opposite," Porter concludes. "Trump is now well aware that it is virtually impossible to carry out the foreign policy that he wants without advisors who are committed to the same objective. That means that he must find people who have remained outside the system during the permanent war years while being highly critical of its whole ideology and culture. If he can fill key positions with truly dissident figures, the last two years of this term in office could decisively clip the wings of the bureaucrats and generals who have created the permanent war state we find ourselves in today."
Trump has called the bluff of the permanent warfare crowd and now has his decision, but the possibility of sabotage by that crowd's assets inside the Pentagon cannot yet be discounted. This is indicated by an exclusive Reuters report claiming that planners at the Pentagon are proposing that the YPG be allowed to keep the heavy weapons that the US has supplied it with, though Reuters' sources stress that the planning is still at an early stage and nothing's been decided yet. And yet, there must be a reason why this is being reported now. It obviously would throw a monkey wrench in the arrangements that Trump is trying to make with Erdogan to keep eastern Syria stable in the wake of the US withdrawal. It would also represent a back down from US promises made earlier to the Turks to retrieve the weapons and Erdogan would throw a fit. Certainly, the idea that the U.S. military can retrieve all of the weapons that it handed over is a dubious one, at best, and there are legitimate questions about whether or not Turkish troops could really operate in the Middle Euphrates valley near the Iraqi border, hundreds of kilometers from the Turkish border.
But the key to the proposal is this: The recommendation "is a rejection of Trump's policy to withdraw from Syria," a person familiar with the discussions told Reuters. So, really, it is an attempt at sabotage.