Has Chinese Assertiveness in Indo-Pacific Made the US Lost Interest in Syria?

US foreign policy choices have definitely contributed to the chaos in the Middle East and regional instability. The US needs to take a more hands-on approach to yield better results.

For years, the United States has been guaranteeing the security of pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. And if the Middle East nations didn’t yield to Washington, their fall was imminent.

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Some recent examples are Iraq and Libya. Moreover, the Middle East has been beleaguered by conflicts, intra-regional as well as inter-regional. And this is one of the reasons the United States has relied on the use of force, covert intervention, economic and military assistance, arms sales, military presence and diplomacy.

Experts have described US President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy as impulsive, isolationist, transactional and turning on a dime with no alternative in place.

Now, that the US is all ready to withdraw its armed forces from the troubled states of Syria and Afghanistan, many world leaders are not too happy. Some have expressed bewilderment such as Israel.

According to the Atlantic, the presence of the US forces meant that Israel did not feel left to manage the threat entirely on its own. “Israel’s tight-lipped statements calling it a ‘US decision’ that would in no way constrain Israel’s own actions betrayed Netanyahu’s unhappiness.”

Though not threatened by ISIS in an existential sense, Israel is trying to prevent jihadist terrorists from harassing its borders. And the battle against ISIS is far from over. Regional observers are quick to say that the removal of US forces will put at risk the gains of the campaign’s first three years, and could facilitate the group’s regeneration.

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Ceng Sagnic, coordinator of the Kurdish Studies program at the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies said US’s decision sent alarm bells ringing. Sagnic said Trump’s decision to withdraw serves to make Iran appear as the most reliable ally for non-state actors of the region, including pro-West groups like the Syrian Defence Forces.

So Why the Sudden Withdrawal

It all goes back to a single phone call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And this took the US administration by surprise. As per various media reports, Erdogan pointed out to Trump that the ISIS had been 99 per cent defeated. He reminded Trump of his own past statements that ISIS was the only reason for US presence in Syria.

This was followed by Trump’s tweet ‘We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there’ and the official decision for the pullout. However, this did not go down well with his own national security team, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and special envoy for the counter-ISIS campaign, both resigned.

Erdogan’s Turkey is something to keep a watch on. This leader is ‘rock-solid’ and Trump has well recognized it. And Israel, as evident, is not too comfortable with Turkey. While Erdogan is out to destroy the Kurds, the Israelis see them as a moderate, pro-Western, Muslim community that eschews anti-Israel sentiment, and with who Israel has worked quietly, as exactly the kind of element that the Middle East needs more of. And all in all, US’s pullout is a strategic and an emotional blow to Israel.

Large-Scale Military Force Ineffective

A little too late, but the US has finally realized that large-scale military force has consistently proven ineffectual at tackling modern interests like counterterrorism. According to experts, the shift in regional strategic environment, the comprehensive approach to the Middle East region also carries increased risks. “It enables dangerous behaviours by US allies, engenders moral hazard in local nondemocratic states and ignores the regional interests of other great powers like China.”

Regional observers say the Iraq war destabilized the oil-rich country and created a decade-long insurgency gave rise to ISIS. US foreign policy choices have definitely contributed to the chaos in the Middle East and regional instability. The US needs to take a more hands-on approach to yield better results.

At the same time,  the “Middle East” is becoming less and less attractive to Washington and the “Very Large Far East” appears to be more enticing. The US is keen on countering China as Washington realizes that they are gradually losing the technological superiority in the Indo-Pacific region.

Both Washington and Beijing are working on asserting military dominance in the region. For now, the most powerful military in the region is still that of the United States, which relies on the ability to have unfettered naval access to the South China Sea and the support of  Taiwan and other nations to bolster its standing.

But China has become more aggressive in trying to assert dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. And its state-owned companies are making inroads in the islands of Oceania — from Saipan to Vanuatu — with infrastructure projects. US officials say those could ultimately become beachheads for the People’s Liberation Army, which would pose a challenge to the US Navy’s operational command in the far island chains.

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