Opinion

Trump’s Syria Withdrawal: Global Order is Costly. Global Chaos Would Be Far Worse | Opinion

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria resonates beyond the Middle East, where key American allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others are raising questions about Washington’s reliability. America’s credibility is on the line, worldwide—even as National Security Advisory John Bolton appears to walk the decision back and condition it on the final defeat of ISIS and Turkey promising not to destroy U.S. Kurdish allies in Syria.

This controversial decision has thrown the U.S. strategic posture from the Arctic to the Mediterranean into question, and has given Russia a basis for claiming a victory.  America appears to be in retreat, and its opponents are taking notice. 

Perceived U.S. weakness, as well as the need for a bargaining chip to release Maria Butina (who is still in jail after having pleaded guilty of acting as an agent for Moscow) or other Russians in the U.S. custody, may have triggered the arrest of Paul Whelan, the Canadian-born American recently detained in Moscow.
 
The U.S. abandonment of Syria is creating a vacuum – one that Iran, Russia, and ISIS will fill. Moreover, by ordering a sudden pullout over the vociferous objections of highly respected political and military leaders, Trump signaled that the U.S. leadership is divided, and lacks overall policy goals, an overarching strategy, and even the stamina to see an important conflict in a crucial strategic theater through to a positive conclusion.
Moscow couldn’t help but notice. Not only it will expand its involvement in the Middle East and Africa, including Libya, Egypt, the Central African Republic, the Congo, and beyond, but the clock for Russian potential mischief in Ukraine and Belarus, both sitting on NATO’s doorstep, is ticking faster.

Belarus is a likely flashpoint. Russian President Vladimir Putin conducted marathon talks with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on December 22 and 28. Sources in Minsk and Moscow confirm that Russia is demanding a massive military base in Belarus, in addition to the current early warning radar system already there.  Furthermore, the Kremlin wants to move ahead with integrating Belarus into the Russian Federation, recalling the Anschluss of Austria in 1938. Putin wants a joint parliament and Cabinet with Belarus, so he can bypass the Russian constitution, and remain in power as the head of the joint state past 2024, when his de-facto fifth term expires. It’s nothing personal against long-time Putin ally Lukashenko; just business.

While Lukashenko is trying to resist Russia’s entreaties, Russian economic pressure on Minsk through threats to cut off its heavily subsidized energy supplies to Belarus is growing. Lukashenko recently said that he no longer can call Russia a “brotherly” country, and that the Kremlin wants to erase Belarus from the map to create a Greater Russia reminiscent of the USSR.

There has been little to no response from the West opposing this Russian Anschluss of Belarus despite its strategic location on the border of Poland. The presence of Russian air and ground forces in that country will expand Russia’s border with NATO by hundreds of miles, creating a line of military confrontation similar to the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, and increasing the chances of a big war in Europe.  

Russia is also planning a military operation in Ukraine, sources in Kyiv and Moscow tell me. This may be a fight to take over the canal that supplies water from the Dnipro river to the Crimea, or a larger operation to take or bypass the ports on the Black Sea coast: Mariupol, Kherson, Mykolayiv, and Odesa, cutting off Ukraine from the ocean. The 2014 “Novorossiya” (New Russia) plan, in which Russia effectively destroys Ukraine, is back on the table.

Europe has failed to respond to President Trump’s pleas to assertively respond to Russian threats. While Ukraine will fight if invaded, NATO will most probably not get involved there militarily, and a German senior military planner recently told me that even energy sanctions, such as nixing the Nordstream 2 Russian gas export pipeline, are off the table.

Meanwhile in China, President Xi Jinping has reiterated that Taiwan may be reunited with the mainland by force, while a senior Chinese expert threatened to sink two U.S. aircraft carriers. So the withdrawal from Syria was an ill omen not just for our European allies, but for those in the Pacific, including Japan, Korea, and Australia. 

The U.S. is facing an increasingly bellicose China, while Russia is busy building a North-South chain of missile-fortified anti-access—area denial (A2-AD) regions, from Kaliningrad on the Baltic, to the Crimea on the Black Sea, to Syria on the Mediterranean.   An additional massive A2-AD region in Belarus may be next. These may serve as the bridgeheads from which Moscow can launch strikes against Europe and against U.S. bases and allies in the Middle East. 

Under these circumstances, the U.S. needs to recommit to leadership of the “collective West”—not to retreat into the brambles of nationalism. While maintaining global order is costly, the alternative—global chaos —will be orders of magnitude more devastating. 

In particular, the U.S. needs to convince the European allies, especially Germany, to become battle-worthy, and deter Russia from attacking not just NATO members, but also Ukraine and Belarus. The Europeans have benefited more than anyone has from Pax Americana for the last 75 years, and need to stand up to the emerging threats.

Washington needs to rebuild its reliability by recommitting to its allies. The time before Russia and China may challenge America is running short—with potentially catastrophic consequences. 


Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of Russian Imperialism

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

Join the Discussion