Dr. John C. Hulsman
Over the present Syria crisis, precipitated by Donald Trump withdrawing around 1,000 US troops from the Syrian-Turkish border in the wake of Ankara’s threatened military lunge toward the Syrian Kurds, the usual American interventionist suspects have predictably decried the president’s actions. Like the mythical Chicken Little, the same US right-wing neoconservatives and Democratic hawks who precipitated the Iraq disaster now blithely tell us the sky is falling down.
Their first false argument is that Russia is now poised to dominate the Middle East as a result of the US withdrawal from northern Syria. Let us be clear — and this cannot be overstated — Russia has a gross domestic product the size of the state of Texas. By any political, economic, or demographic standard, Russia is a fading power, not a rising one.
Even regionally, Russia is not remotely a dominant player. Syria is the only country in the Middle East where Russia has a military base; in contrast, America has troops in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and the UAE. So it is nothing short of hysterical to say that, by increasing its role in peripheral Syria, Russia now dominates the region.
The second false argument is that, in withdrawing, the US is betraying its Kurdish allies. Here it is time for everyone to take a deep breath and grow up. It is certainly true that the Kurds were vital allies, working intimately with America in destroying Daesh’s supposed caliphate, taking 11,000 casualties while the US provided the logistics, air power, training and intelligence.
But this is international relations, where ever since the dawn of time foreign policy has been primarily based on a country’s interests. To pretend otherwise is simply to ignore the past 3,000 years of history. The Kurds helped the US because there was an obvious common interest in destroying Daesh. The Kurds also assisted American efforts in Syria because they were well-paid and supplied by the US to do so. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this — it is the way of the world. But to pretend that they did so out of some general love for the US, playing Butch Cassidy to the American Sundance Kid, is to think in terms of fairy tales.
All alliances are temporary and dissipate when the common interests that led to the entente in the first place fade away. This is what has happened over the past few weeks in Syria. Think of the counterfactual: Was Trump supposed to actively go to war with long-term NATO ally Turkey, a country that houses US nuclear weapons at its base in Incirlik, in order to stand by the Kurds? Of course not. And, as Turkish President RecepTayyipErdogan made crystal clear in his now infamous call with Trump, that amounts to the other American option. Rightly, Trump let US interests dictate his response.
The third interventionist argument is that Daesh, in the midst of this country-wide chaos, will quickly reconstitute itself. In terms of re-establishing a physical caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq, the smashed Daesh fighters are simply in no position to do so. Well before Trump’s standing down on the Syrian border, Daesh morphed into primarily a terrorist threat, rather than amounting to a regional power player.
This is a real problem, but one that ought to be manageable by global policing and intelligence sharing. Daesh will surely strike again, but this is a second-order difficulty, one that has not materially changed as a result of Trump’s actions. Daesh’s over-hyped resurrection is also not a reason for the US to remain in Syria endlessly.
So if all this is what is not happening in Syria, what is happening? First, in terms of grand strategy, the US drawdown is yet another step on the road to it moving toward a more offshore, balancing role in the Middle East. It is staying in the region but in a more limited way as its attention turns to Asia, the region that in the coming years will contain much of the world’s political risk, but also much of its economic reward.
Second, and despite the cobbled-together cease-fire, the longstanding US-Turkish alliance is well and truly over. In erratically tactically acquiescing in the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, and then just as quickly censuring Erdogan, in the short run Trump finds himself in the worst of all political worlds: Hated by interventionists for giving way to Ankara, and distrusted by noninterventionists as he attempts to be tough with Turkey, long after the horse has left the stable.
The final nail in the coffin will be when the US removes the 50 B61 nuclear gravity bombs from Turkey’s Incirlik base. Though they remain under the strict custody of US Air Force personnel, their (rightful) removal will signal what we all now know: Neither the US nor Turkey trusts the other over vital security matters. Strategically, this is both a consequence of Turkey’s new neo-Ottoman emphasis on the Middle East, and Trump’s Jacksonian turn away from the region. Ironically, as was true with the Kurdish alliance, bereft of common interests, Washington and Ankara are definitively going their own ways.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London.
The article was originally published on Arab News.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.