The Syrian Civil War entered a new phase this week, with the US ending its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (“SDF”) – a political movement of mixed ethnicities and religions organized around the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party and its paramilitaries – in advance of a large-scale Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, both Democratic and Republican foreign policy leaders decried the decision, acknowledging the US was effectively abandoning its most effective partner in the conflict against the Islamic State. Having spent time at the Department of Defense, and having numerous colleagues fight alongside the SDF, I am both deeply troubled with these events and unable to provide a more detailed commentary on this relationship in this forum. With that said, this is not the only crisis facing the US, and if other global developments are acknowledged, global stability – both political and economic – cannot be taken for granted at this time.
While President Trump’s interest in limiting American involvement in the Middle East is clear, he embraced the challenge of North Korea’s (“DPRK”) nuclear weapons program personally. His direct engagements with Kim Jong-Un were truly novel developments, clearly limiting belligerent rhetoric between the two countries, even if a practical agreement on reducing the DPRK’s nuclear program has proven elusive. While conducting another round of talks remains possible, what is certain is that the DPRK breached a new technological threshold recently. Simply having nuclear weapons is a useful as a basic deterrent, but delivering nuclear weapons reliably is an essential next step in having a credible deterrent. Last week, the DPRK conducted a successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. While not likely operational at this time, this weapon gives the DPRK a so-called “second strike” capability, which means that if the US or China sought to strike DPRK’s command and control systems and nuclear arsenal, DPRK submarines would still be available to counterattack with nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the DPRK – despite its political and economic isolation – demonstrated again the Inevitability Challenge of counter-proliferation and fielded a system that effectively precludes opponents from considering options to remove its government without a dramatic cost being incurred in response.
Concurrently, the Russian Intelligence Services have introduced a renaissance of sorts – few developments in politics are truly new, ask Leon Trotsky – by embracing assassination. One incident, the attempted killing of a former Russian intelligence official in the United Kingdom, captured global attention due to the brazen nature of the attack and the employment of a highly dangerous toxin. A second incident in Berlin this past August has not received the same amount of public attention, despite the location of the attack and the nature of the victim. Now, a former official with Russian military intelligence has confirmed the existence of a highly-classified special missions unit likely responsible for these attacks, as well as other operations, all with the strategic goal of undermining European political cohesion. That Russia has formalized these operations and continues to execute them against a variety of targets demonstrates both Vladimir Putin’s tolerance for risk and that the responses to these activities, e.g. expulsion of diplomats, indictments, or economic sanctions, have not served as an effective deterrent.
Russian aggression and DPRK weapons tests make for a more dangerous world, but taken in isolation, either of these developments would not truly be indicators of a shifting global status quo. When PM Boris Johnson’s struggles with Brexit, Iraq’s nation-wide street protests, India’s military occupation of Kashmir, and a global ecological crisis are added to the cumulative effect (to name a few high profile examples), the strain on global political and economic systems becomes unmistakable. There is no one cause to these troubles, and a collective solution to any of them is likely impossible given the makeup of international leadership and their often opposing interests, so it is likely that 2019 will end with greater international uncertainty than at the year’s outset.
In closing, the contribution of the men and women of the SDF to America’s national security is notable and the current news cycle’s attention is warranted. However, this attention is likely fleeting, as a new crisis will eventually overtake the plight of Syrian Kurds in the popular imagination. No future crisis can be perfectly predicted, of course, but a serious assessment of global risk would indicate that at least one is more likely than other eventualities. Acknowledging that the US will not intervene on behalf of its battlefield partners in Syria, and that the SDF’s defeat at the hands of the Turkish Armed Forces – and the release of thousands of Islamic State adherents from SDF-run prisons – is certain, the return of Islamic State-inspired terror to Europe and elsewhere is now all but inevitable. It is a sad reflection on the state of the world to note that Kurds under attack from the Islamic State now will be pushed to memory as a resurgent Islamic State unleashes new rounds of attacks against new targets in 2020 and beyond. With even this one possibility acknowledged, observers of politics and global financial markets alike would be wise to adjust their projections for the coming year accordingly.