Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.10.23

Trump's move in Syria should alarm U.S. allies

the japan times on October 15, 2019

What experts have long dreaded finally happened in northern Syria last week. Following a U.S.-Turkey presidential telephone conversation the night before, U.S. troops stationed there started to withdraw from the region on Oct. 7. Within less than 48 hours, Ankara began its military incursion into the Kurdish region of northern Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be determined to eliminate the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which mainly consists of Syrian Kurdish militias known as the YPG. Although Ankara aims to "water the east of Euphrates with fountains of peace" in this military operation, it is in fact flooding Syrian Kurdish soil with blood.

For Turkey, the SDF is a nest of Kurdish extremists who maintain close ties with the PKK in Turkey, which Ankara calls a terrorist organization. For the United States, the SDF/YPG is one of its staunchest allies in Syria, without which it would not have been possible for Washington to declare victory last December in the war against the Islamic State extremists.

Fatal mistakes in politics are the worst kind of errors because they are irreversible and extremely detrimental. They are often made by intuition, coincidence or misjudgment, and politicians do not always recognize when they have made them. This is exactly what U.S. President Donald Trump and Erdogan did last week regarding Syria.

Despite the appalling magnitude of their mistakes, Japan's mainstream media didn't seem to care much. The decision, however, was detrimental for three possible reasons: greater instability in the Middle East, another refugee crisis in Europe and, most importantly, the declining credibility of alliances with the United States.

Turkish Empire's resurgence?

The first concern is the future of Turkey. Where does Ankara go from here? Like Japan, Turkey is located on the periphery between the West and the East. In 1924, Kemal Ataturk initiated a series of political, economic, cultural and religious reforms to transform Turkey into a modern and secular nation-state. Several decades later, however, the Europeans still do not accept Turkey as a full member of the European Union, although the great majority of Turks consider themselves to be Europeans. Partly as a reaction to this EU refusal, Islamic political parties rose in Turkey and the country's traditional pro-Western foreign policy has changed.

In this sense, the latest intervention in northern Syria can be interpreted as part of Ankara's new diplomacy. Of course, Turkey's new offensive will by no means help it to recover its once hegemonic influence over the Middle East region. It remains to be seen if Ankara continue to behave well as a NATO ally in the years to come.

Another EU refugee crisis?

The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Oct. 7 that it is "deeply concerned" about "a potential unilateral military operation by Turkey in northeastern Syria." Of course, Europe is concerned about the resurgence of the Islamic State but the greatest worry must be the possibility of another massive wave of refugees sweeping into Europe.

Turkey's military move might become so indiscriminate that countless number of civilians flee the region. In that case, most of them would head for northern Europe. Therefore Ankara's decision could endanger the stability of not only the Middle East but also Europe.

Is the U.S. a trustworthy ally?

What is most troubling is the credibility of the United States as an ally. When Trump said, "Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place and we will hold them to this commitment," I was almost speechless.

If these commitments came from Ankara, Trump is helplessly naive. Turkey never promised to protect ethnic minorities such as the Syrian Kurds, America's best ally in Syria. Now Trump is imposing "punishing" sanctions against Turkey. Washington is losing two allies in the region simultaneously.

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, acknowledged this situation, stating the U.S. "is abandoning our ally the Kurds, who fought ISIS on the ground and helped protect the U.S. homeland. This action imperils American security and that of our allies. Congress must and will act to limit the catastrophic impact of this decision."

Foreign Policy carried an article on Oct. 9 titled "Trump's Capitulation to Erdogan Destroys U.S. Credibility." It stated that, "By abandoning America's Kurdish partners in Syria, the White House has sent a message to allies everywhere that Washington can't be trusted." The magazine hit the nail on the head.

The ramification of the fatal mistakes made by Trump and Erdogan are so grave that no leader of allies or friends of America can ignore it, even when they're on the other side of the world.

What does South Korean President Moon Jae-in, for example, make of the ill-fated withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria? Will he consider it to be a betrayal of a faithful U.S. ally or just as another impulsive episode of the U.S. president, who some Democrats assert suffers from narcissistic personality disorder? Either way, for Moon the events in Syria are not trivial.

People in Tokyo either don't get it or they do not want to know what the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria really means for the Japan-U.S. security alliance mechanism. They may be right in thinking that such a thing might only happen to South Korea. But how sure can Japan be about that?

Having lived in and covered the volatile politico-military situation in the Middle East for the past 40 years, I cannot be so sure. Anything can happen in the era of intuition, coincidence and misjudgment. History sometimes rhymes no matter what. Welcome to a new world of deja vu that our grandparents might have seen 90 years ago.