by Eldar Mamedov
The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from Syria caught the European foreign policy establishment, like pretty much everybody else, flat-footed. During the early stages of the Syrian civil war, the European Union echoed Washington’s view that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had to go, and subsequently cut relations with his regime. France was among the most interventionist EU countries. It also happens to be one of its most militarily and diplomatically capable ones. The hawkish anti-Assad stances taken by France and Britain toughened up the common EU position on Syria.
So it came as no surprise that France was among the countries that disagreed with Trump’s decision most vocally. Its defense minister, Florence Parly, promised to stay the course in Syria until “ISIS is fully defeated”. Meeting with Syrian Kurdish representatives in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron reconfirmed French support for their anti-Islamic State (IS or ISIS) efforts. Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium and now the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, tweeted that Trump’s withdrawal was a gift to Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, and emphasized the need for a European army capable of stabilizing the EU’s neighbourhood.
Macron’s and Verhofstadt’s intentions may be good, but their policy prescriptions in this case are misguided, and would make the EU less, not more, secure.
First, although defeating IS is certainly a desirable thing, it’s simply unattainable by purely military means. Even if its physical existence as a “state” has come to an end, its ideology survives and thrives on the grievances, real or perceived, of Sunni Muslims. As such, it is transnational, not confined to the Middle East, and has found its way to the Muslim communities in Europe as well. So dealing with this threat demands, first of all, effective security measures at home, but also better efforts to address the social and cultural marginalization many Muslims feel in Europe.
Second, the states involved in the Syrian war–Syria, Turkey, Russia and Iran–are capable of finishing the territorial IS off on their own. A small European, or French, contingent, embedded with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), would not make much difference on the ground. On the negative side, though, it would have to become one combatant among many others in an already crowded area. That would increase exponentially the risk of friction with some or all of the regional players.
Certainly, Turkey would see a European military presence in northern Syria, especially aligned with Kurdish forces, as a hostile move. And it has plenty of tools at its disposal to retaliate where it hurts most: back home in Europe. Ankara might choose to weaponize the Turkish diasporas in European countries to stoke up tensions there, should it feel expedient to do so. Moreover, a European military contingent would not deter a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, which would be accompanied by Sunni jihadist militias and could facilitate the re-emergence of IS in some form. This would provoke another flow of refugees from the region to Europe and strengthen the hand of the far right populists who threaten Europe’s democracies. So, sending European troops to the Syrian melee would prove to be a classical case of good intentions paving the road to hell.
Instead, the EU should focus on what is its collective core interest: preventing a re-emergence of IS and irregular migration flows to Europe. This can only be realistically achieved if the race to fill the vacuum left by the Americans in the northern Syria is won by the Syrian government, not Turkey and its jihadist allies. There are signs that a deal along these lines is currently being negotiated between Russia, Turkey, and Syria. Europeans could use their influence with the Kurds and SDF to convince them not to overplay their hand. That would mean recognizing that Arabs, Turks and Iranians will never allow the Kurds to have their own state, and when push comes to shove, no external backer will ever come to their rescue. Therefore, the least bad option could be to accept the sovereignty of Damascus in exchange for physical safety and perhaps some measure of cultural autonomy–an arrangement that could look like the one next door in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The EU, however, cannot credibly argue for such a settlement, as it is still wedded to its “Assad must go” policy–even though his victory, unpalatable as it may be, is a fact. So, the EU finds itself in the worst of both worlds: it is not in a position to play an effective military role, and it also has its hands tied diplomatically. The EU is reduced to hoping that others–Russians, Syrians, Turks, and Iranians–will find a solution that would prevent a re-emergence of IS, protect Kurds, and preclude new waves of refugees from reaching Europe, without having any leverage with which to shape these outcomes. With the Gulf countries, which spent a lot of capital seeking to overthrow Assad, now rushing back to Damascus, the EU can’t even dangle the prospect of reconstruction aid as leverage to further its goal of political transition from the Assad regime to a more representative government.
Macron and Verhofstadt seem to think that the EU finds itself in such an unenviable position because it lacks “credibility”, which only real military muscle could provide. A European army might indeed make sense, but only as a strictly defensive measure: for example, to reassure the small Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania against potential Russian aggression, in view of Trump’s manifest coldness toward NATO. But giving it a broader mandate, such as stabilizing the EU neighbourhood and projecting power outside Europe, would only drag the Union down the same failed U.S. path of military interventionism in the Middle East.
Rejecting militarized solutions is not a sign of disengagement. To the contrary, such restraint would allow the EU to maximize its real strengths: diplomatic skills, economic power, and a more nuanced understanding of Middle Eastern realities. In fact, the EU is at its best in the region when it plays on these strengths, like when it defends the nuclear deal with Iran, or facilitates UN-held talks over Yemen. And it’s at its least effective when it adopts the neoconservative mindset of dividing the world into “good” and “evil”. The EU should re-discover its ability to talk to all players in the region, however distasteful some of them might be. A profound re-think of its Syria strategy, in view of realities on the ground, is in order. In this, Trump’s decision, although announced in a characteristically abrupt way, could yet provide a useful wake-up call for the EU.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.