Syria Tests Trump's Attempt to Reset U.S. Policy




  • In World
  • 2019-08-09 10:00:05Z
  • By Bloomberg

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It's difficult to find a coherent foreign policy in President Donald Trump's Twitter feed and rally speeches. One day he is threatening North Korea's tyrant with annihilation, the next day he is sending him love letters; in one tweet he is promoting a "cybersecurity unit" with Russia, a few tweets later he is saying it can't happen. It can all be a bit confusing.

Beneath the cacophony, though, his administration is actually attempting nothing less than a reordering of American foreign policy. Instead of focusing on counterterrorism, and denying jihadi groups a safe haven in weak or failing states, the U.S. wants to prioritize the threat from state actors such as China and Russia.

There is only one problem with this strategy: It presents a false choice. The U.S. can combat non-state actors such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, engaging China and Russia as needed. At the same time, it can act to counter Chinese and Russian aggression.

And such a transition - from a focus on counterterrorism to one on great-power competition - can be fraught. Former President Barack Obama attempted it, with his incomplete "pivot to Asia" and premature withdrawal of conventional forces from Iraq. Obama also initially supported a surge of forces in Afghanistan, only to pull most of them back and negotiate with the Taliban. Trump is now also trying to cut a deal for a "conditions based" withdrawal with the Taliban, after a modest surge in 2017.

The best illustration of the tension of this transition is in Syria. There, Kurdish Maoists known as the YPG have been valuable allies in the U.S. and allied campaign to smash the Islamic State's proto-caliphate. They are also closely linked with Turkish Kurds, who have committed terrorism in Turkey for decades. For the last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send his military into Syria against America's Kurdish allies.

Under the great-power competition strategy, the U.S. would prioritize Turkish insecurity about the Syrian Kurds over the Syrian Kurds' legitimate fears of a Turkish military attack. The Syrian Kurds became an ally of convenience for the U.S. when no other local Arab forces could stand up to the Islamic State. Turkey is a longstanding NATO ally. And while it has strayed from the West in recent years, such as its purchase of a Russian air-defense system, Turkey counts much more than the Kurds do when it comes to regional competition with Russia.

For now at least, the U.S. has been spared this painful choice. This week Turkey and the YPG announced an agreement to separate their respective forces in northern Syria. If the agreement holds, says David Adesnik, director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, it would allow the U.S. to "preserve both alliances."

Details of the agreement are still being worked out, said a senior U.S. official, who described it as a "de-confliction arrangement" for Turkish and Kurdish forces. A big part of the deal would commit some U.S. forces to engage in joint patrols with the Turkish military for as long as the U.S. remained in Syria. In the meantime, it relieves the YPG of an imminent threat from Turkey, freeing the group to continue operations against the remnants of Islamic State.

It's important to stress what the agreement is not: a U.S. security guarantee to the Kurds. The closest the U.S. has come to threatening Turkey if it attacks the Kurds is a Trump tweet from January, when he said the U.S. would "devastate Turkey economically" if it followed through on the threats against the Kurds.

This highlights the flaw in the theory behind this so-called transition: America can and should do both - combat terrorism, and address the threats from great powers like China - at the same time. Amassing resources and allies to counter China, Russia or medium-size rogue states such as Iran does not require the U.S. to stop fighting transnational terrorist groups. The cheapest and most efficient way to do that is by deploying some Special Forces to train and equip local militias to fight terrorists in their safe havens.

The agreement in Syria shows that diplomacy can placate a truculent ally without abandoning those who have assisted in the U.S. fight against terrorism. And if the deal sticks, much of the credit will belong to Trump's special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey. Still, for smaller groups such as YPG, the implications of America's larger strategy are clear: We are grateful for your help in the fight against terrorism. But if you run afoul of one of our important allies, we will not protect you.

Is that a message the U.S. really wants to be sending to the smaller states it will need to help counter China and Russia?

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

COMMENTS

More Related News

FBI wiretap of Trump campaign aide was riddled with errors, but Russia probe was legally justified, IG report finds
FBI wiretap of Trump campaign aide was riddled with errors, but Russia probe was legally justified, IG report finds

DOJ IG Michael Horowitz's report, released Monday, says the FBI was not driven by bias against President Donald Trump in launching the Russia probe.

Ted Cruz says Ukraine
Ted Cruz says Ukraine 'blatantly interfered' in 2016 election during testy exchange with Chuck Todd

Sen. Ted Cruz only could point to one op-ed from a former ambassador to the U.S. as proof that "Ukraine blatantly interfered in our election."

Pardoned soldiers are Trump
Pardoned soldiers are Trump's special guests at closed-door fundraiser in Aventura

President Donald Trump, speaking during a closed-door speech to Republican Party of Florida donors at the state party's annual Statesman's Dinner, was in "rare form" Saturday night.

A top Trump health appointee reportedly tried to get taxpayers to reimburse her for $47,000 in jewelry that got stolen from a rented SUV
A top Trump health appointee reportedly tried to get taxpayers to reimburse her for $47,000 in jewelry that got stolen from a rented SUV

Seema Verma wrote in her claim that none of the jewelry was insured, and that the items were appraised by a jeweler several weeks after the theft.

North Korea conducts
North Korea conducts 'very important test': KCNA
  • World
  • 2019-12-08 01:43:47Z

North Korea has conducted a "very important test" at its Sohae satellite launch site, state media reported Sunday, as nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington remain deadlocked. "A very important test was carried out at the Sohae Satellite Launch Site on December 7th, 2019," a spokesman for the North's National Academy of Science said. The result of the latest test will have an "important effect" on changing the "strategic status" of North Korea, the spokesman said in a statement carried by the KCNA news agency.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *

Cancel reply

Comments

Top News: World