The Strategic Vacuum Trump Created in Syria Will Grow To Haunt American Interests for a Generation | Opinion

The retreat of a small U.S. military contingent in Northern Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, and the perceived abandonment of America's Kurdish Marxist YPG allies, who spilled blood fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, reverberates beyond the Middle East.

Russia and Iran are the beneficiaries, as the Assad regime forces and their Russian betters move in. Turkey, meanwhile, has learned the lesson that it can browbeat and push Washington around.

America's allies, from Jerusalem to Jeddah, and from Taipei to Tokyo, are wondering how reliable the world's predominant superpower is now. But the real question is how the withdrawal affects U.S. strategic interests. This requires an analysis that is Realist, not ideological. It does not stress democracy promotion ("neo-conservatism") or boosting international organizations for their own sake ("Wilsonianism".)

Trump's isolationist and unilateralist urges—from scuttling wide-reaching trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, designed to bind Europe and the Pacific Rim with the U.S.; and pulling out of arms control treaties, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty—will come back to haunt America's national interests.

The U.S.-led global architecture we live in today is the product of four generations, paid for by thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars of investment. The Framework's undeniable success has kept America safe and prosperous since 1945.

Upon winning World War II, inheriting the mantle of the British Empire, and triumphing against the Soviet Union in the Cold War in 1989-1991, the U.S. painstakingly put together a system of alliances, international organizations, and military bases, which makes the world safe, and provides a leg up for U.S. businesses.

But this was not always the case. Until World War II, Great Britain was the premier global power, albeit in decline. The British people were bled white on the battlefields of the Great War, and Empire lacked the budgets to keep its naval and air power deterrence against the German and Japanese challengers. Without the U.S. and Soviet support, the Nazis and the Japanese would have defeated the British lion.

After the war, London broke and exhausted, made a strategic decision to withdraw from the Indian subcontinent, and from the Middle East and Africa. The British elite lost the willpower and taste for the imperial enterprise.

The hasty British departure generated a geopolitical vacuum, setting the stage for a series of conflicts that occurred from the 1940s to 1960s. These include the partition of India (and many subsequent conflicts with Pakistan), a number of wars between Israel and coalitions of Arab states, а Communist/Chinese insurrection in Malaysia, the failed Enosis (unification with Greece) in Cyprus, and a slew of nasty ethnic conflicts in Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria. Millions perished, and millions more became refugees.

And it was always like that. After the collapse of the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires, a number of conflicts erupted, including the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, and wars leading to the independence of the Baltic states and Finland. Again, millions were killed or became refugees.

While the British Commonwealth is a pleasant club today, it is not used much to prevent war, enforce peace, or as a security organization. It fell to the United States to create a successful alliance in Europe (NATO), whereas alliances or even collective security organizations like OSCE remain elusive in the Middle East and Asia. Security there is mostly founded on bilateral treaties and ties with Washington.

Statesmen's mistakes have led to conflict. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson omitted Korea from the perimeter the U.S. was willing to protect in 1950, Stalin, Mao, and the current Kim's grandfather Kim Il-Sung attacked South Korea, and a bloody war raged until 1953, in which three million people lost their lives and 36,000 Americans perished.

Beware of Unintended Consequences

The goal of withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East, which Trump inherited from the Obama Administration, and the weakening of U.S. commitments in Europe, and Asia-Pacific, will change the global balance of power in favor of Iran, Russia, and China. It will also serve to lift the pressure from radical Islamic groups, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS—nothing less than a U.S. defeat.

Such a strategic retreat is also likely to trigger further regional conflicts. Iran and Russia are the primary candidates to challenge regional supremacy in the Middle East, as evidenced by Russian military police taking control of Manbij, and a triumphant visit by Vladimir Putin to the Gulf.

Iran is likely to take its time playing geopolitical chess, using Shi'a militias in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen to intimidate neighbors with drones and cruise missiles, as well as intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action failed to limit. Tehran is weaponizing the Shia populations of the Eastern province in Saudi Arabia and around the Gulf.

With the U.S. scaling down its presence, Iran will boost its naval power in the Gulf of Aden and near Bab-el-Mandeb, the entrance to the strategic Red Sea and the southern gateway to the Suez Canal. This will represent a threat to the Horn of Africa, and to shipping from the Gulf, especially of oil and gas.

On the African continent Russia and China are expanding their economic and military presence. China surpassed the U.S. as a trade and investment partner with Africa, and Russia is using its expertise in hybrid warfare, weapons sales, nuclear reactors, and raw materials, to quickly expand its hold from the Central African Republic to Congo to South Africa.

A weaker U.S. commitment to Europe would encourage Moscow to increase its military presence in NATO's periphery in countries like Belarus and Turkey. Moscow is actively bringing Ankara into its orbit, building upon the giant Akkuyu nuclear project worth $20 billion, launching the massive TurkStream gas pipeline, and increasing sales of advanced weapons systems like the S400. Turkey's value as a NATO ally will become increasingly questionable.

Further south, Russia will attempt to shoulder the U.S. from the Gulf as an arms and nuclear reactors supplier. Have no doubt, the great power security providers get first dibs for weapons, infrastructure, and other big-ticket government contracts. China, already the primary investor in ports, airports, and all sorts of infrastructure, will enhance its military, economic, cultural and educational presence in Europe and the Middle East as well.

Statesmen's Wisdom

The historic lesson is simple: a cost-benefit balance needs to be done for America's overseas presence. No nation should maintain global influence out of vanity, but losing one's status may become costlier, messier, and bloodier, than readjusting its global presence to fit its 21st century interests.

Otherwise, a protracted era of chaos, wars, conflicts, terrorism, and turbulence would exact its own price on American security and business. The Commander-in-Chief's duty is to develop and implement strategy, and listen to those who know and understand it—not to beat a hasty retreat for no reason, flip-flop, or abandon allies when the whole world is watching.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Director, Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​