Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy offered a pointed reminder to the troops Monday about obeying their commander in chief, amid open grumbling and criticism from current and former military members over President Trump’s abrupt decision to pull out of Syria last week.
At the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington on Monday, Mr. McCarthy — officially sworn just two weeks ago — said he appreciates candor from the troops so long as it doesn’t become disrespectful, a violation of military discipline.
“Everybody has opinions in the war of ideas. But, when national policy decisions are made, we salute and move on,” Mr. McCarthy said.
The reminder amounted to a tacit admission that Mr. Trump’s Syria policy is causing problems for the Pentagon, which is dealing with a NATO ally in Turkey but has forged strong operational links with the Syrian Kurds, who provided the bulk of the ground firepower in the deadly campaign to defeat Islamic State. Mr. McCarthy said the issue is complicated, and if individual soldiers have questions, it’s up to Army leadership to answer.
“We’re trying to make sure we don’t have a challenge with a NATO ally. There’s a lot of work that has to be done between us and our Turkish counterparts,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Mr. Trump’s willingness to leave the Kurds to fend for themselves has already proven a source of contention with his military leaders. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, who had been the U.S. counter ISIS envoy, both quit the administration late last year to protest Mr. Trump’s original pullout order in Syria.
Retired Gen. Joseph L. Votel, who until March headed Central Command troops in the region, said last week Mr. Trump’s move undercut five years of effort by U.S. forces in Syria and “will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights where we need strong allies.”
And the Syria withdrawal isn’t sitting well with at least some of the American troops who worked with Kurdish allies directly on the ground.
“I am ashamed for the first time in my career,” a veteran Special Forces soldier who has been advising the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces told Fox News.
The Kurdish troops were often considered the most reliable local forces in the region. Their soldiers liberated ISIS-held towns like Raqqa and provided safe havens in their autonomous zone for a number of persecuted ethnic and religious minorities. Many U.S. military personnel are taking to Twitter anonymously, using #miltwitter to register their unhappiness.
“It is not the responsibility of servicemen to uphold the people in power, but to uphold the system, which are two completely different things,” tweeted a user named Rabid Pelican.
It’s unknown whether the response from Mr. McCarthy about the Kurdish withdrawal would satisfy the ranks.
“We, as active, reserve and veteran uniformed service members have souls. We have duties and responsibilities that don’t end at” the end of the day, tweeted another military member.
Gen. James C. McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, said “higher-level strategic politics” were involved in the decision to pull out American troops from the Kurdish held region now under siege by Turkish military forces.
But the visceral reaction of some U.S. forces who served alongside the Kurds remains a problem.
“I feel physically ill with worry and concern and deeply ashamed that my own country would permit this fate to befall our close allies who did all our fighting for us, when we had the power to prevent it,” one U.S. Marine who served in Syria in 2017-2018 told Foreign Policy magazine.