IN a move so shocking, so out of character with American ideals, and so ignorant of historical consequences that even some of his staunchest political defenders condemned it, US President Donald Trump on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) summarily ordered the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, effectively abandoning America’s Kurdish allies in the face of an imminent invasion by Turkish forces.
The move came after a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which the Turkish leader informed Trump of his intention to send his forces into northern Syria against the Kurds. Turkey has had a long conflict with the Kurdish people, a part of whose homeland lies in southeastern Turkey, and considers the Kurdish fighters a terrorist group.
Until Trump’s phone call and subsequent order for US forces in the area to pull back and stay out of the Turkish force’s way, the Kurds were heavily supported by the US with both money and weapons in the confused, multi-factional Syrian civil war. Despite the Kurds’ conflict with Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, and the US-backed Iraqi government, the US has frequently praised the Kurds as key allies who are largely responsible for virtually wiping out the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.
Although the Kurds are renowned as smart, tough warriors, it is almost certain that they will be unable to withstand the onslaught by Turkey, which began less than 24 hours after the Trump-Erdogan conversation with a series of airstrikes against their positions in northern Syria.
Trump’s capricious approach to foreign policy — which has led to, among other things, the trade war with China, the breakdown in talks with North Korea, increased tensions with Iran, and antagonism between America and some of its closest allies such as Mexico and Europe — has already set much of the world on edge. Although other American officials will undoubtedly offer reassurances that the US will honor its commitments, Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds raises alarms for any other country — like the Philippines — that has always counted on various kinds of US support.
The consequences for the US of Trump’s graceless decision might be dire, as history shows. After the defeat and withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, America abandoned its mujahidin allies in that country. The resentment subsequently turned many of the former freedom fighters into the dreaded Taliban, and others into global terrorists; one of the latter was Osama bin Laden.
For everyone else, the clear message is that, at least as long as the US has its current president, it cannot be relied upon as a defensive partner. This has grave implications for the Philippines, where the dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea has always been tempered to some extent by the Philippines’ close relationship with the US. Likewise, the Philippines has been the beneficiary of substantial support from the US through the years in fighting extremist terrorism in this country. With the US president demonstrating that he has little respect for his country’s commitment to an ally, every other country or group backed by the US has to wonder if they will be the next to be abandoned.
In this sense, the policy of President Rodrigo Duterte in keeping the Philippines’ relationship with the US at a little more distance than his predecessors seems prescient. Trying to establish a more independent foreign policy lessens the risk of suddenly being abandoned. Although the Philippines should of course maintain cordial relations with the US, it ought not count on America always being there, because it might not be; not as long as Trump is president.