Many Americans may be inclined to say good-riddance to Syria and the rest of the Middle East to boot. But in terms of its standing and credibility, the United States will pay dearly in East Asia for Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops in northern Syria.
He is leaving Kurdish allies in the lurch – and to the tender mercies of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose attitude toward the Kurds is well known and not amicable.
Inconsistency – even hypocrisy – may be part and parcel of foreign relations, but how a nation treats its friends still matters – and both friends and enemies notice.
And the Kurds have been good friends over the years.
In Syria, it is the Kurds who did most of the fighting and dying, while backed by U.S. air power and logistics, in the battle against ISIS.
The Kurds were also America’s staunchest allies during the Iraq War. Now, yet another U.S. administration is sacrificing them.
One thinks the Kurds would know better by now.
In 1975, the U.S. went along with the Shah of Iran’s abandonment of the Kurds. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Reagan administration turned a blind eye when Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish civilians, given that he was battling Iran. And after Gulf War I in 1991, President George H.W. Bush allowed Saddam to wade into the Iraqi Kurds once more, though he belatedly realized his mistake and established a no-fly zone protecting Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Now, Turkey and Bashir Assad’s regime in Syria will be the immediate beneficiaries of this new reality. Both parties are keen to rough up the Kurds – partly out of spite and revenge, partly to deal a blow to a troublesome ethnic group, and partly for the oil fields in Kurdish territory.
More broadly, what Trump may not have considered is that something done or not done in one part of the globe often manifests itself half a world away. One fairly asks, from where does his advice come?
The import of the Kurdish situation in Syria is the matter of Washington’s credibility.
Besides the issue of keeping faith with people who fought alongside and trusted the United States, it appears the Trump administration is willing to sacrifice a small group or nation (albeit, the Kurds never had a formally recognized state) for what it sees as more important interests involving the major regional power – in this case, Turkey.
The fact that the group in question controls territory that is one of the more decent and tolerant places in the region and that they are one of the few players in the area roughly aligned with U.S. interests and values ought to count for something in Mr. Trump’s calculus.
The treatment of the Kurds is being noted worldwide. Behind closed doors, America’s friends and enemies will be drawing conclusions from Trump’s –or any future administration’s – potential indifference to implicit promises and moral obligations.
This will be especially true in the Asia-Pacific.
Feeling It In East Asia
Doubts already exist about the U.S. commitment and staying power to the region, following the Obama administration’s supine response to China seizing Philippine maritime territory in 2012 and Beijing taking de facto control over most of the South China Sea.
Longer memories linger on how U.S. promises to South Vietnam played out during the North Vietnamese invasion of 1975. Not only Vietnamese refugees in the USA remember that abandonment. So, too, do the Hmong ethnic minority who fought on the U.S. side in Laos in the 1960’s and 1970’s, who are now exiled in Minnesota and other US cities.
And even more troubling, one can be certain Beijing remembers the Americans standing by while South Vietnam went under.
While ASEAN nations and even Australia and Japan have their doubts about the U.S.’s spine in dealing with China, and are hedging their bets, Taiwan might feel especially exposed as “the Kurds of Asia.” Like the Kurds faced with Turkish and Syrian power, the Taiwanese are facing a powerful and aggressive China bent on regional domination and keen to bring an independent people (indeed, a nation) to heel.
Beijing has always been clear what it intends for Taiwan: “Submit or we will use force to make you submit.”
Taipei has long – and rightly – worried about U.S. support, and the abandonment of Kurdish allies will reinforce these doubts. This is despite the Trump presidency being more supportive of Taiwan than any administration since Ronald Reagan’s. This is particularly so given that Trump, currently engaged in a trade war with Chinese President Xi Jinping, may resolve that war by cutting a big deal with Xi.
And even once Mr. Trump is gone in two or four years, another administration will find it near impossible to restore lost credibility without getting into a bloody war to prove it.
Certainly, if tensions rise across the Taiwan Strait, Washington may express concerns – even “serious” concerns, pass Congressional resolutions, move aircraft carriers around the regional chessboard. But there are plentiful precedents that suggest Washington will do nothing more, and may allow a small, free nation to be manhandled – or enslaved.
No doubt this isn’t what the Trump administration intends by leaving Syria and giving the Turks the “green light,” but this is the message that is being sent. Keeping 1,000 troops engaged in a low-casualty conflict in Syria was a reasonable price to pay for America’s global credibility. It sent a message to Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and even Pyongyang that the U.S. protects its friends. That message has now evaporated.
And, we just might see the results in the Taiwan Strait sooner than imagined.