It’s difficult to find a coherent foreign policy in President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and rally speeches. One day he is threatening North Korea’s tyrant with annihilation, the next day he is sending him love letters; in one tweet he is promoting a “cybersecurity unit” with Russia, a few tweets later he is saying it can’t happen. It can all be a bit confusing.
Beneath the cacophony, though, his administration is actually attempting nothing less than a reordering of American foreign policy. Instead of focusing on counterterrorism, and denying jihadi groups a safe haven in weak or failing states, the U.S. wants to prioritize the threat from state actors such as China and Russia.
There is only one problem with this strategy: It presents a false choice. The U.S. can combat non-state actors such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, engaging China and Russia as needed. At the same time, it can act to counter Chinese and Russian aggression.
And such a transition — from a focus on counterterrorism to one on great-power competition — can be fraught. Former President Barack Obama attempted it, with his incomplete “pivot to Asia” and premature withdrawal of conventional forces from Iraq. Obama also initially supported a surge of forces in Afghanistan, only to pull most of them back and negotiate with the Taliban. Trump is now also trying to cut a deal for a “conditions based” withdrawal with the Taliban, after a modest surge in 2017.
The best illustration of the tension of this transition is in Syria. There, Kurdish Maoists known as the YPG have been valuable allies in the U.S. and allied campaign to smash the Islamic State’s proto-caliphate. They are also closely linked with Turkish Kurds, who have committed terrorism in Turkey for decades. For the last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send his military into Syria against America’s Kurdish allies.
Under the great-power competition strategy, the U.S. would prioritize Turkish insecurity about the Syrian Kurds over the Syrian Kurds’ legitimate fears of a Turkish military attack. The Syrian Kurds became an ally of convenience for the U.S. when no other local Arab forces could stand up to the Islamic State. Turkey is a longstanding NATO ally. And while it has strayed from the West in recent years, such as its purchase of a Russian air-defense system, Turkey counts much more than the Kurds do when it comes to regional competition with Russia.
For now at least, the U.S. has been spared this painful choice. This week Turkey and the YPG announced an agreement to separate their respective forces in northern Syria. If the agreement holds, says David Adesnik, director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, it would allow the U.S. to “preserve both alliances.”
Details of the agreement are still being worked out, said a senior U.S. official, who described it as a “de-confliction arrangement” for Turkish and Kurdish forces. A big part of the deal would commit some U.S. forces to engage in joint patrols with the Turkish military for as long as the U.S. remained in Syria. In the meantime, it relieves the YPG of an imminent threat from Turkey, freeing the group to continue operations against the remnants of Islamic State.
It’s important to stress what the agreement is not: a U.S. security guarantee to the Kurds. The closest the U.S. has come to threatening Turkey if it attacks the Kurds is a Trump tweet from January, when he said the U.S. would “devastate Turkey economically” if it followed through on the threats against the Kurds.
This highlights the flaw in the theory behind this so-called transition: America can and should do both — combat terrorism, and address the threats from great powers like China — at the same time. Amassing resources and allies to counter China, Russia or medium-size rogue states such as Iran does not require the U.S. to stop fighting transnational terrorist groups. The cheapest and most efficient way to do that is by deploying some Special Forces to train and equip local militias to fight terrorists in their safe havens.
The agreement in Syria shows that diplomacy can placate a truculent ally without abandoning those who have assisted in the U.S. fight against terrorism. And if the deal sticks, much of the credit will belong to Trump’s special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey. Still, for smaller groups such as YPG, the implications of America’s larger strategy are clear: We are grateful for your help in the fight against terrorism. But if you run afoul of one of our important allies, we will not protect you.
Is that a message the U.S. really wants to be sending to the smaller states it will need to help counter China and Russia?