Many Americans may be inclined to say good-riddance to Syria and the rest of the Middle East to boot. However, in terms of its standing and credibility, the US will pay dearly in East Asia for US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops in northern Syria.
He is leaving Kurdish allies in the lurch, and to the tender mercies of Turkish 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.
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 US air power and logistics, in the battle against the Islamic State group. They were also the US’ staunchest allies during the Iraq War. Now, yet another US administration is sacrificing them. One thinks the Kurds would know better by now.
In 1975, the US went along with the Shah of Iran’s abandonment of the Kurds. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the administration of then-US president Ronald Reagan turned a blind eye when then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish civilians, given that he was battling Iran.
After the first Gulf War in 1991, then-US 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 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime will be the immediate beneficiaries of this new reality. Both parties are keen to rough up the Kurds: partly out of revenge, partly to deal a blow to a troublesome ethnic group and partly for the oil fields in Kurdish territory.
What Trump may not have considered is that something done or not done in one part of the globe has implications half a world away. One 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 US, 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 aligned with US interests and values ought to count for something in Trump’s calculus.
The treatment of the Kurds is being noted worldwide. Behind closed doors, the US’ 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.
Doubts already exist about US commitment and staying power in the region, following the supine response of former US president Barack Obama’s administration 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 US promises to South Vietnam played out during the North Vietnamese invasion of 1975. Not only Vietnamese refugees in the US remember that abandonment. So, too, do the Hmong ethnic minority who fought on the US side in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, who are now exiled in Minnesota and other US cities.
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 US 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 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 US 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 Reagan’s.
This is particularly so given that Trump, currently engaged in a trade dispute with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), might resolve that war by cutting a big deal with Xi.
Even after Trump is gone, 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 might express concerns — even “serious” concerns — and pass congressional resolutions and move aircraft carriers around the regional chessboard.
However, 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 is not 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 the US’ global credibility. It sent a message to Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and even Pyongyang that the US protects its friends. That message has now evaporated.
We just might see the results in the Taiwan Strait sooner than imagined.
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Corps officer and a visiting scholar at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
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