America's Offshore Balancing in Action
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America's Offshore Balancing in Action

President Trump's decision on Syria and what it may tell for the Karabakh negotiation process.

America's Offshore Balancing in Action

By Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan
Executive Director, Political Science Association of Armenia

US President Donald J. Trump recent decision to withdraw American forces from Syria caught in surprise everyone - the Washington establishment, foreign policy pundits and everyone else who follow the Middle East Geopolitics. Given the top priority which President Trump has attached to the containment of Iran and curbing its activities in the Middle East, many believe that US presence in Syria should either be expanded or at least stay at the same level. Just at the beginning of December (2018), State Department Special Representative for Syria Engagement Ambassador James Jeffrey stated that the US is going to be present not forever in Syria but until its conditions – enduring defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria, and an irreversible political process is being implemented.

The resignations of the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the US envoy of anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk due to their disagreements with President on Syria are other proofs that decision was made without any prior consultations with President's national security team. The same may be said also on the US President another decision to pull out some 7000 American troops from Afghanistan. According to the AP, the decision on Syria was made during President Trump phone with Turkish President Erdogan held on December 14 when the US President was put on the defensive by Erdogan’s strong pressure.

In recent days several top US experts and some international think tanks published brief materials concerning the reasons and possible implications of that decision. Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) harshly criticized the decisions urging that the US is losing on all fronts. Steven A. Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) argued that after US withdrawal Turkey gets trump card to increase its pressure on Syrian Kurds. 

The International Crisis Group emphasized the necessity for Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey, Syrian Government and Syrian Democratic forces to negotiate to avoid escalation of the conflict and reach an agreement which will likely require the return of Syrian regime forces to the Syrian-Turkish border as well as a political arrangement leaving Syrian Kurds with a measure of local self-rule.

Nevertheless, everyone agrees that the main winners from the President Trump decision on Syria will be the Syrian government, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The clear losers are Syrian Kurds who should choose between guerilla-style warfare against Turkish forces or return of Syrian government troops and abandoning their hopes for the tangible autonomy. Given the strengthening positions of Iran in Syria Israel and Saudi Arabia also should feel unhappy.

Meanwhile, while seeking to understand some ground behind President Trump's decision we may argue that his actions are in line with “Offshore Balancing” strategy. The term was initially used by Christopher Layne in his 1997 article From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America's Future Grand Strategy” published in the “International Security” journal. The same author articulated the idea further in his 2002 article Offshore Balancing Revisited” published by the Washington Quarterly. However, the key developers of the strategy are political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer who published their seminal The Case for Offshore Balancing” paper in July/August 2016 issue of the Foreign Affairs. The Stephen Walt articulated this strategy further in his 2018 book “The hell of good intentions: America’s foreign policy elite and the decline of U.S Primacy”. Here Walt harshly criticizes the “liberal hegemony” strategy pursued by both Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations arguing that flawed strategy is the main culprit of strategic mistakes and failures of American foreign policy after the end of the cold war. Walt argues that the best option for the US is to pursue “Offshore Balancing”. The key pillars of that strategy are — to eschew trying to remake the world in America’s image and to focus on upholding the balance of power in three key regions: Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf. The strategy relies primarily on regional actors to uphold local balances of power and commit the United States to intervene with its own forces only when one or more of these balances are in danger of breaking down.

The withdrawal of the US forces from Syria can be explained within the terms of “Offshore Balancing” strategy as currently the geo-strategic struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as potential rivalries between Turkey and Saudis as well as Turkey and Iran for regional leadership, effectively prevent any regional power from gaining hegemonic positions in the Middle East and breaking the balance of power. Thus, for the time being, there is no need for the US to intervene with its own forces which give them the opportunity to significantly decrease their military deployments in the region.

Regardless of the fact if President Trump is aware of that strategy or its actions are mainly based on his personal intuition and his desire to implement his campaign promises and to strengthen its electoral base amid the myriad of legal problems, his recent decisions on Syria and Afghanistan are in line with the “Offshore Balancing” strategy.

Meanwhile, recent developments should be widely watched and analyzed not only in the US, but also in the Europe, and the Middle East. Surprisingly, they may have implications for the Karabakh conflict negotiations. The process has been effectively stalled since Kazan 2011 summit when Azerbaijan rejected the document prepared by the Minsk Group Co-chairs. The Kazan document envisages withdrawal of Karabakh forces from parts of the security zone and deployment of peacekeeping forces as a guarantee that Azerbaijan will not launch a military attack on Karabakh using its more favorable positions after the changes of the line of contact till the new referendum will decide the final legal status of Karabakh. The Minsk group co-chairs — the US, Russia, and France, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, would guarantee the implementation of the agreement and prevent any Azerbaijani attack. Currently, after the snap Parliamentary elections held in Armenia in December, the negotiation process may reinvigorate in early 2019.

However, if the process again focuses on Kazan document or its slightly amended version, the Karabakh have to agree to the unfavorable changes of the line of contact which will make a future defense of Karabakh much more complicated. Simultaneously, Minsk Group co-chairs need to provide international guarantees on Azerbaijan compliance with the terms of the agreement. Meanwhile, President Trump abrupt decision to pull out US forces from Syria once again is proving the illusionary pattern of international guarantees in current multi-polar and multilayered world order. The US has multiple times provided guarantees to the Syrian Kurdish forces that they will protect them in return to their active involvement in the fight against the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the US President decision put Syrian Kurds in an awkward position to be attacked by the Turkish forces or to negotiate with government forces and forget dreams about autonomy. After the events in Ukraine, President Trump decision once more effectively eliminates the possibility to have a firm belief on international guarantees if it relates to the hard security.
Thus, in future negotiations, Karabakh and Armenia have all incentives to urge that any changes of the line of contact could be implemented only if Azerbaijan recognizes the status of Nagorno-Karabakh as the only acceptable guarantees for not resuming the hostilities. Otherwise, any major step towards the settlement may, in reality, bring closer the major war with potential regional spillover.

About the Author:

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan | Executive Director, Political Science Association of ArmeniaDr. Benyamin Poghosyan is the vice-president for research and the head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense Research University in Armenia holding this position since August 2016 and Executive Director of Political Science Association of Armenia since 2011.

In 2013 he was a Research Fellow at the U.S. National Defense University. His primary research areas are the geopolitics of the South Caucasus and the Middle East and the US – Russian relations and their implications for the Post-Soviet space. He joined Institute for National Strategic Studies (predecessor of NDRU) in March 2009 as a Research Fellow and was appointed as INSS Deputy Director for research in November 2010. Before this, he was Foreign Policy Advisor of the Speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia. Dr. Poghosyan has also served as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences and was an adjunct professor at Yerevan State University and in the European Regional Educational Academy. He is the author of more than 70 Academic papers and op-eds in different leading Armenian and international journals and media platforms. Dr. Poghosyan is a graduate of the U.S. State Department Study of the US Institutes for Scholars Program on U.S. National Security Policy Making. He holds a Ph.D. in History and is a graduate from the Tavitian Certificate Program on International Relations at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Cite this Article:

Poghosyan, B., " The Curious Case of America's Offshore Balancing in Action", IndraStra Global Vol. 04, Issue No: 12 (2018), 0070,, ISSN 2381-3652

Poghosyan, B., " The Curious Case of America's Offshore Balancing in Action", IndraStra Global Vol. 04, Issue No: 12 (2018), 0070,, ISSN 2381-3652

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.