US President Donald Trump’s administration is struggling to undo the catastrophic damage caused by the president’s precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria. Some of it is irreparable, such as the lives lost or maimed. Nor will the Russians and Syrian government forces now moving into the areas abandoned by the US be pushed out any time soon.
The third price the US is paying — its reputation as a reliable ally in the region — would only be partially reversed if the administration imposes sanctions strong enough to severely punish Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime and cause Ankara to halt its brutal aggression against the Syrian Kurds or, even less likely, to retreat from the newly occupied areas.
The impact of Trump’s rash action is magnified because it builds on the regional blunders of the administration of former US president Barack Obama.
Obama in 2011 announced that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must step down” — and then did nothing for the next five years to achieve that objective. In fact, his policies worked in the opposite direction, ensuring al-Assad’s survival by allowing Russia to gain an unprecedented strategic foothold in the Middle East.
Similarly, Obama warned al-Assad that using chemical weapons against the Syrian people was a US “red line” that would trigger a major response. Al-Assad is still there, while 400,000 Syrians who heard and believed the former US president are not, and millions more have fled to Europe, creating new security issues there.
The fourth cost of the tragic Syria episode is the most far-reaching — the lessons other tyrants are learning from these presidential retreats, particularly in Asia, where the US, its allies and its security partners face their gravest threats. There, the harm to the US’ credibility as a serious ally and security partner has been compounded by Trump’s statements defending his decision.
His rationale for deserting the Kurds, loyal allies, was shockingly simple: “Turkey has wanted to do this for many years.”
That is an ominous message for northeast Asia, where the communist regimes in China and North Korea long have harbored their own historical grievances and territorial ambitions.
North Korea, with China’s indispensable assistance, already invaded South Korea once, in 1950, triggering a three-year war to reunify the Korean Peninsula under the rule of the Kim family dynasty. Pyongyang has never given up on that strategic goal.
China’s aggressive intentions are even more extensive. It wants unification with Taiwan, which it has never ruled. Beijing also covets the Senkaku Islands administered for decades by Japan. And, in recent years, it has made sweeping claims over the entire South China Sea and seized a Philippine island, despite a UN arbitral tribunal ruling that its position is entirely without legal or historical merit.
If long-standing aggressive intentions justified Ankara’s incursion against the Kurds, Beijing and Pyongyang could reason they are entitled to the same US deference for their territorial ambitions.
As Trump put it in justifying his action: “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles [11,265km] away!”
Actually, Syria is 6,341 miles from the US. Japan is at a distance of 6,521 miles; South Korea, 6,690 miles; Taiwan, 7,619 miles; Philippines, 8,222 miles; Thailand, 8,630 miles; and Australia, 9,437 miles. Should these US allies and security partners, farther from the US than Syria, now worry that they exceed the limits of Washington’s strategic concern?
The last time the US declared South Korea and Taiwan outside its security perimeter, the Korean War erupted. Former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain infamously dismissed Adolf Hitler’s designs on Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
The US administration’s newly promulgated national security documents, all consistent with Trump’s own original instincts, make clear that the new focus will be directed at the great-power threats from China and Russia, and to a lesser extent, North Korea. Middle East conflicts are considered a distraction that no longer can be afforded.
However, it is now incumbent on the US administration to manifest that security shift by dramatically demonstrating, in words and deeds, its renewed commitment to the Asia theater. There is no better way to start than to declare unequivocally that the US will defend Taiwan against Chinese communist aggression.
After the tragic Syria mistake, Washington cannot afford strategic ambiguity on Taiwan or any other place in Asia that is threatened by China or North Korea. The president could demonstrate that commitment by deploying to Taiwan the small contingent of security forces that once protected the Kurds.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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