Editorial: A blow to American credibility

 

In his Lowy Institute lecture on October 4, Australian PM Scott Morrison rightly said that Australia’s “alliance with the United States is our past, our present and our future. It is the bedrock of our security.” 

Yet the strength of this alliance greatly depends on the credibility and reliability of the US as a global power. US President Donald Trump’s decision in early October to abandon America’s Kurdish partners in Syria by acquiescing to a Turkish invasion is a major blow to American prestige and influence – not only in the Middle East, but globally. This does not mean Canberra should be downgrading our US alliance, but we should be thinking about how we can best leverage our partnership with Washington to encourage the US to constructively maximise its engagement with the world. 

US President Donald Trump has often advocated an isolationist or purely transactional approach to world affairs.

Trump capitulated to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, who was poised to launch an attack on the Kurds of northern Syria, ordering American troops in the area to pull out, and implying the US was completely washing its hands of the Syrian situation, and of “endless wars” in the Middle East. 

While the welcome subsequent demise of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and decision to maintain and fortify American troops elsewhere in Syria, have partially modified this initial impression, the damage has largely been done. 

The abandonment of the Kurds further erodes the credibility of American influence and power as a trusted, reliable and stable ally. 

In the harsh jungle of the Middle East, Trump’s behaviour was instantly tagged as weakness. Other enemies and rogue actors like North Korea, Venezuela and China would also be drawing similar conclusions. 

During the civil war, the Kurds became the only actor in Syria willing and able to confront Islamic State on the ground – fighting bravely, losing thousands of casualties and also creating the only area in Syria where stability, adequate governance and reasonable individual freedoms prevailed. 

Now, in the face of the relentless Turkish goal of crushing Kurdish self-determination, they have been left with no choice but to place themselves under the protection of the gloating dictator and war criminal Bashar al-Assad, and his patrons, Iran and Russia. 

On a macro level, by apparently vacating the arena, Trump left the door wide open to Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, to further assert his authority across the region.  Putin is today the undoubted strongman in Syria, following his decision in 2015 to send modest Russian forces to save Assad from then imminent defeat. 

Now, with US acquiescence, Putin has stepped in to broker a “ceasefire” which gave the Turks everything they wanted – a 120 km long and 30 km wide “security belt” along the border, free of Kurdish forces. Erdogan says he plans to settle many of the 3 million Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey into that zone – which would swamp the existing Kurdish majority. 

Iran is closely watching these developments. While Shi’ite Teheran is no fan of Sunni Turkey, both benefit from the crushing of Kurdish national ambitions. 

But a more invaluable gain for the Iranians would be the removal of American forces from Syria – which are a barrier to their own ambitions to create an extensive and permanent presence in the country, embodying military, political and economic dimensions. 

One aim of this presence is to create an imminent and direct Syrian threat against Israel, to be used if and when it is needed. For that purpose, Iran is constantly trying – and increasingly succeeding – in creating a “land-bridge” from Iraq and across Syria to transport weapons easily and cheaply to Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon.

There is no doubt that the precipitous US withdrawal from Syria caused considerable shock and concern in Israel. Washington remains an indispensable ally for the Jewish state, but Jerusalem has been forced to accept that this ally is much less reliable and predictable than most analysts had generally assumed. 

Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu has understandably trumpeted the value of his unrivalled friendship with Trump, who in return provided Israel with long-overdue policy shifts such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognising Israel’s rule of the Golan Heights. 

Even more importantly, the Trump Administration withdrew from the disastrously flawed 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal and has subjected Iran to an unprecedented and highly effective campaign of “maximum pressure” executed through extensive economic sanctions. 

Yet, such policy shifts today look much less effective and valuable in the wake of the drastic decline of US credibility in the Middle East – fuelled by the limited US response to Iranian acts of war against oil tankers in the Gulf, the aborted retaliation for the downing of an American drone, and complete inaction following the devastating Iranian attack on Saudi oil fields, as well as Washington’s Syrian withdrawal debacle. 

Also damaged by recent events is Jerusalem’s steadily increasing rapprochement with Sunni Arab states who share Israel’s concerns about Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and destabilising actions across the region. With US credibility badly dented, those states are now either turning toward Russia to guarantee their security, or contemplating they may have no choice but to submit to Iranian domination. 

Israel has always sought to “defend itself, by itself” – and this has not changed. But with the US alliance looking much less reliable today, some serious rethinking by Israel’s political and military leadership on how best to do this needs to be underway. This is especially the case as the reality sinks in of Washington leaving Israel to basically fend for itself in dealing with Russia, and even more worryingly and apparently inevitably, militarily facing an increasingly belligerent, emboldened and threatening Iran. 

Thus, the need for Israel’s political leaders to resolve the ongoing political standoff of the past nine months and build a solid, viable and workable unity government has suddenly become urgently compelling.