President Donald J. Trump’s decision to redeploy U.S. forces from the Syrian-Turkish border, if not to withdraw the majority of U.S. troops from Syria altogether, constitutes a shameful betrayal of America’s Kurdish partners in the fight against ISIS and a needlessly self-inflicted wound to U.S. interests. Indeed the images of U.S. withdrawal are feeding ISIS, Iranian and Russian propaganda mills.
But among the disastrous consequences of Trump’s decision summoned up by his critics, one seems hyper-inflated: the notion that deserting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has so shaken the confidence and trust of Washington’s longtime allies and partners that they will now think carefully about relying on the U.S. for their security and cooperating with the Americans.
We don’t buy it. Even the victim of America’s latest perfidy—Mazloum Kobani, commander of the SDF—recently expressed the hope (perhaps out of desperation) that the relationship with the U.S. would continue. Indeed, America’s relations with its most important Middle Eastern, European, and Asian allies will survive Trump’s stab in the back and almost certainly outlast his presidency.
On the face of it, it’s easy to understand the impact that throwing the SDF under the bus had on America’s Middle Eastern allies, who understandably, in a cruel and dangerous region, worry for a living.
The Israelis, who had long supported and identified with the Kurds as a minority, felt particularly aggrieved, convinced America had now left the field to Iran. It is also important to bear in mind that Trump’s 180 on the Kurds took place against the backdrop of his “America First” policy, his dismissive attitude toward many of America’s NATO allies, and his unwillingness to respond with force to Iran’s attacks against Saudi oil installations in September (though the Saudis no doubt breathed a sigh of relief).
But does Trump’s Kurdish betrayal spell disaster for America’s allies and rapture for their adversaries? Are we in for a major realignment because Trump has forgotten who America’s friends are? Almost certainly not. And here’s why.
The Kurdish Exception
To compare America’s relationship to the SDF—a newly created non- state actor—with any of Washington’s traditional allies in the region or beyond is misplaced, misleading and just plain wrong. Whatever doubts South Korea or Japan have about Trump, it’s not driven by his policy toward a Kurdish/Syrian militia, but rather by the way he has dealt with both allies in the face of a threat from North Korea. Going forward, both will be watching how Trump deals with them and whether he fulfills his commitments to Tokyo and Seoul, not to the Kurds.
The SDF was a valiant partner in America’s campaign against ISIS. And deserting those who had sacrificed thousands of their fighters in the battle against ISIS was an abdication of moral responsibility. But both the history of America’s ties with the Kurds and the future of that relationship were quite different from America’s ties with its historic allies in Europe and Asia. America had a tactical marriage of convenience; there had never been a history of consistent cooperation and no domestic base of public support. The relationship was not anchored in shared values and Syria, unlike the major concentrations of wealth and power in Europe and northeast Asia, is of little strategic or geopolitical consequence for the balance of power in the Middle East.
Few, if any, of America’s treaty allies—not even the British or the French, who were contributing to the campaign against ISIS—were prepared to assume a long-term commitment to Kurds, offer the SDF security guarantees over the territory they controlled, or accepted Kurdish aspirations for autonomy given the Turkish determination to crush it. And that’s because the Kurds’ fate is of little matter to the U.S.’ traditional allies. To assume, however, that they would draw the conclusion that Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds signaled that the U.S. would not defend them in response to an external attack or willingly put them in life threatening circumstances is a real stretch even in Trumpland.
In betraying the Kurds, Trump has been almost universally scorned for putting U.S. credibility at risk with its allies in the region and beyond. According to this theory, if America fails to confront a challenger in one place, it will confront challengers in many places because of the loss of American credibility. Like so much that passes for conventional wisdom these days, it is wrong. And because it results from bad analysis, it can lead to very bad decisions that increase the risk of America going to war to defend its reputation. A 1984 Yale University study reviewed dozens of cases between 1900 to 1980 for signs that if a country stood down in one confrontation, it would face more threats elsewhere. There was no correlation.
International relations experts who have studied the role of credibility’or what is often referred to “as reputational anxiety"’in U.S. foreign policy agree on the following propositions:
First, when an adversary of the U.S. is contemplating an attack on an American ally, its decision-making calculus on the risks and rewards of aggression is not based on what America may, or may not have done, to confront challenges in other circumstances; rather, it is determined by its perception of how Washington views its stake in the outcome of the potential conflict in the circumstances it is facing and whether America has the will and capacity to defend those interests.
And second, the threatened American ally will make similar calculations about whether it can count on Washington to meet its security commitments. It is preposterous to believe, for example, that because of Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds, Kim Jong Un would order an attack on South Korea; Vladimir Putin would decide to attack a NATO country; President Xi Jinping would decide to seize Taiwan, or Iran’s leaders would decide to launch a full-scale attack on Israel. Nor is it likely that Trump’s decision will embolden these leaders to take greater risks in a situation where misjudging America’s resolve could lead to serious consequences for the survival of their country and their rule.
The U.S. gets stuck in a self-imposed credibility trap thinking wrongly that reputations are all that matter. Studies suggest that the Russians didn’t believe the US was weak because it abandoned South Vietnam and were surprised the US had stayed for so long.
America’s allies are justifiably concerned about Trump’s general unpredictability and erratic, mercurial, and impulsive behavior. His policies have strained America’s relationships with its allies. Japan and South Korea are worried about Trump selling them down the river to placate North Korea; Israel is worried about the possibility of a rapprochement with Iran and the absence of U.S. leadership in the Middle East. And yet these countries depend on America—they have no alternative to an American guarantee of their security, certainly not Russia, and the U.S. withdrawal of all its forces from Syria, if and when that happens, won’t change that.
In fact, even as Trump withdrew U.S. forces there, he announced the additional deployment of several thousand troops, combat aircraft, and air defense systems to Saudi Arabia. That Riyadh is prepared again to host U.S. troops reflects how dependent it has become on U.S. support. And not only Saudi Arabia; this week Bahrain hosted, under U.S. auspices, a conference on maritime security with 60 countries including Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The U.S. has an enormous military footprint in Qatar and Kuwait. None of the U.S. partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council lifted a finger to help the Kurds in their fight against ISIS and none made a significant contribution to the anti-jihadist cause in either Syria or Iraq. So it is not terribly logical to argue that they would get all exercised about the U.S. ending its military support for the Kurds.
America’s long-time allies make decisions based on their own circumstances, the common interests they share with the U.S., the context of their relationship, and whether or not they view Washington as fulfilling specific obligations and commitments to them. In some cases, America’s relations with its partners and allies go back decades and they are rooted not only in shared interests but common values as well. These relationships should not be taken for granted, but they are not easily breakable like fine China. And more than likely, even with an impulsive bull in that China shop, they’ll be around much longer than Donald Trump.