By Tristan Ober
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, which Ankara launched on October 9, appears to have come to a halt. Compared to Russia’s role in resolving the crisis, involvement of the United States is far less prominent, underscoring the extent to which Moscow has capitalized on Washington’s strategic blunders—under both President Donald Trump and his predecessors.
Where is the European Union (EU) amid this power struggle in northern Syria? Unquestionably, Europe’s lack of influence in northern Syria is notable. Considering that the EU is likely to suffer from the spill-over effects stemming from Turkey’s third military operation against the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) since August 2016, the bloc’s inability to assert its influence in this crisis is alarming from the standpoint of European interests.
To be sure, concluded ceasefires and pacts are unlikely to spell the end of Turkish military operations in the area. Nonetheless, the halting of Turkish military operations there do provide an opportunity to take stock of Operation Peace Spring’s effects on the EU, and to evaluate the individual European states and the EU’s collective response to Turkey’s latest assault on the YPG.
Regarding Operation Peace Spring, the dangers of Islamic State (ISIS or IS) fighters escaping detention facilities pose the most prominent risk from the EU’s perspective. With the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) guarding around 11,000 IS-fighters and thousands of women and children from the terrorist group before the start of the Turkish incursion, fears spread around Europe that the diversion of manpower to the frontlines could spark a slew of prison breaks in SDF-controlled areas of Syria. Not only would this result in a potential resurgence of IS in the region, with the organization potentially benefitting from a great boost in manpower, it could also open the doors for foreign fighters to travel back to Europe. These fears became a reality to some degree, as there have been several prison breaks, with the largest one seeing around 750 IS-affiliated detainees escape, while there have also been confirmed reports of at least two Belgian foreign fighters escaping imprisonment under the SDF. However, amid chaos in northern Syria, the EU and many of its foreign partners likely lost track of many foreign fighters’ movement. According to some claims, the U.S. doesn’t know how many ISIS fighters have escaped.
Besides the risk of foreign fighters dropping off the radar and returning to Europe, ISIS may re-inspire those who were initially dissuaded from joining by the group’s apparent defeat. An additional concern for several countries within Europe—predominantly Germany and the Netherlands—are the sizable Kurdish and Turkish communities that live there. As one would expect, both diasporas have been deeply involved in the events that are unfolding in northeast Syria, resulting in several demonstrations and counter-demonstrations across Europe. In the Netherlands, at least one of these demonstrations escalated into violence, resulting in dozens of arrests. In Germany, the situation has been described as “sitting on a powder keg,” with the events in Syria heavily affecting everyday interactions between Turkish and Kurdish residents. The tensions between the two communities serve as a reminder to EU member-states that events in Syria and other countries across the Middle East and North Africa directly impact Europe.
Given the EU’s high stakes in Operation Peace Spring, the bloc’s lack of a coherent response was striking. Except expected outcries from members of parliament (both European and national), the EU’s overall reaction has been lackluster and, most importantly, riddled by division. While the EU’s 28 member states supposedly “unanimously condemned” Turkey’s operations in Syria, Hungary’s earlier willingness to provide Turkey with provisional support hints at a lack of unity among the European states, none of which appear willing to become actively involved. What’s more, although several EU states have halted weapons exports to Turkey, officials in Ankara consider this move as little more than “a joke.” Not only does the Turkish domestic industry produce a significant share of the arms used by the Turkish military, Ankara also knows it can look to the U.S., which provides around 60 percent of Turkey’s total arms imports, and Russia, with which Ankara recently negotiated the purchase of its S-400 air defense system. In addition to its lack of impact on Turkey’s military capabilities, an EU arms embargo does not at all address the issues that EU-nations are facing. And, while commentators may wonder if President Trump was outdone by Vladimir Putin, the complete absence of any comprehensive EU mediation effort illustrates the lack of gravitas that the organization holds in Ankara, if not the Middle East at large.
It appears that the Europeans are paying a price for not taking pre-emptive measures that could have advanced EU security and diplomatic interests. For example, authorities across Europe were aware that many foreign fighters who joined ISIS were held in SDF-controlled prisons in northern Syria. Yet when it came to addressing the foreign fighters issue—many of whom came from the West—the EU’s efforts have been disjointed and largely ineffective. Although nearly all EU members have pushed for local trials because of fears of the risks involved in bringing back foreign fighters, they have failed to sufficiently support local authorities in managing the enormous amount of cases.
Even now that it has become apparent that regional dynamics pose a threat to the trying and sentencing of IS-fighters, EU members are still aiming to simply shift the problem by having detainees moved from Syria to Iraq’s judicial system. This too, is problematic, however, as Iraq’s judicial system does not only currently lack the resources required to try the large numbers of ISIS militants, but also wields different measures of justice. For example, Iraqi courts often sentence former ISIS militants to death, a penalty which the EU and its member states are publicly opposed to. This particular issue led to fierce debates within the Dutch parliament, with some MPs claiming that the use of the death penalty by Iraqi courts should not be considered a reason for the Dutch state to try its ISIS militants in its national courts. Others, in contrast, argued that accepting the death penalty for Dutch citizens would be tantamount to the Netherlands forsaking its commitment to human rights. Even if European states would put aside their ethical concerns, Turkey’s intention to repatriate ISIS militants captured in during Operation Peace Spring could still see European foreign fighters tried in their respective national courts.
Additionally, although the EU and its members have gone to great lengths to condemn President Trump’s initial decision to “abandon” the YPG, the move was no surprise. Not only has Trump repeatedly asked European states to pull their weight militarily, but the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands Pete Hoekstra already admitted in June that there was a need for Dutch (read: European) boots on the ground in Syria. Yet neither the Dutch government (nor any other EU member-state) decided to act on Washington’s request for support, instead opting to make the Americans responsible for security in the region. It is not unfair then, that when Ambassador Hoekstra was confronted with the Dutch criticism towards the U.S.’ decision to leave the region, he argued that the Netherlands were equally responsible and were in no position to make any demands, as they had already vacated the region. The Dutch hesitance to engage is illustrative of the EU’s engagement with the region overall, as even now, MEPs call on the UN to take action, rather calling on the EU or its member states to step up. This lack of willingness to resort to military engagement is likely also an important explanation for why the EU has been completely circumvented in the negotiations regarding the Turkish military operation, as it simply has no means of applying any credible pressure.
Although it has been clear for a long time that the EU’s ability to react to global events has been limited due to its fragmented nature, it is perhaps even more painful to note that its ability to anticipate and negate risks stemming from such events is equally inadequate. Lacking a coherent foreign and security policy, the EU appears largely incapable of protecting itself from events that are beyond its immediate control. Issues such as the fear of trying foreign fighters on their own soil and the dependence on U.S. military capabilities to protect its interests limit the credibility of the EU and its member states. If the EU continues along its current path, it may very well see itself being side-lined in future discussions concerning the Middle East and North Africa region that directly affect its interests.