How ‘America first’ could put America last
US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria and scaling down its military presence in Afghanistan has led to the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and anti-Daesh coalition envoy Brett McGurk, the former sending a scathing letter of resignation in which he argued strongly in favour of honoring international commitments.
As far as Syria is concerned, there are clear winners and losers from the withdrawal of US troops. The pullout is unconditional, which means that instead of allies having their positions ring fenced, they are now exposed to enemy forces.
Russia has been playing its cards well. Its support for Bashar Assad secured it a naval base in Tartus, an airbase in Khmeimim and several forward bases. The first is of particular importance because Russia had lost access to the warm-water ports of the Mediterranean in the aftermath of the Cold War. This had been a thorn in the side of the country’s generals for a long time. It did not, then, come as a surprise when President Putin praised Trump’s decision during his mammoth end-of-year international press conference. Iran is the other big winner from Trump’s move. It can now develop its land bridge to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon without any impediment. This will not bring joy to Israel, which is probably the strongest and most important US ally in the Middle East. Russia and Iran are the allies of President Assad. The latest US move will speed up his army regaining control over much of the remaining territory he had lost in seven years of civil war.
Trump’s move in the Middle East and the resignations of senior security officials go well beyond that particular geography.
Turkey is happy too. It opposes the Assad regime, but looked beady-eyed at the support the US and other Western powers gave the YPG Peshmerga Kurds. For the Turkish regime the YPG are related to the banned PKK. They are classed as terrorists by the government of Turkey, which views ideologies propagating an independent Kurdish state as an existential threat. They fear that such ideologies could eventually undermine the territorial integrity of their country. President Erdogan had held back on a full-scale assault on the YPG, because it would have been tantamount to a blue-on-blue assault — one NATO country, Turkey, in direct conflict with the allies of another NATO country, the US. Erdogan also praised Trump’s decision and promised not to invade northern Syria for the time being. It is questionable, however, how long the Turkish restraint will last. In the end fighting will resume in northern Syria with no regard for the civilian population, who are probably the biggest losers from Trump’s announcement.
The French and the British voiced concern. France’s Armed Forces Minister, Florence Parly, made a particularly good point when she countered President Trump’s assertion that the fight against Daesh was over. While the caliphate controls only about 1 percent of the territory it held at the height of its power, Daesh has not been beaten. It has merely retreated and will remerge somewhere else, possibly in a different incarnation. Such is the nature of asymmetric warfare with non-state actors.
Trump’s announcement on Afghanistan left US allies bewildered. Only 7,000 US troops will remain if the US presence is halved. This prompts the question, what can 7,000 soldiers achieve when peace and stability eluded 100,000 US troops? Again, the announcement comes at a critical stage when the government of Afghanistan needs to come to some sort of modus operandi with the Taliban. A strong presence of allied forces would be beneficial to such talks.
Trump’s move in the Middle East and the resignations of senior security officials go well beyond that particular geography. It indicates that the US is no longer the reliable ally that had shaped the post-Second World War international architecture. The president’s open criticism of NATO and one-sided cancellation of military exercises on the Korean Peninsula in the summer were further examples in the military theater — as is exiting the Paris Accord on Climate Change on the civilian front.
Democracies have at their disposal arsenals that go well beyond arms; soft power, diplomacy and reliable partnerships work to the benefit of all concerned. In that sense, a strict “America first” policy threatens to undermine the very foundation that American influence is built on.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources