European Union is a sideshow in Syria conflict

Brave words notwithstanding, Europe enjoys no more than a walk-on role in the crisis engulfing northern Syria.
Saturday 19/10/2019
View of the plenary assembly at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 9. (Reuters)
View of the plenary assembly at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 9. (Reuters)

The international actors who carry the most weight in the crisis stemming from Turkey’s military incursion into Syria are Russia and Syria.

The former seized the opportunity to reprise its role as a broker between the Assad regime, on which the Kremlin has lavished military support, and groups Damascus wants to quell in Syria. The Kremlin must placate its strategic ally, Ankara, and has rejected suggestions the new alliances could pit it against Turkey.

Notwithstanding the ceasefire brokered between the United States and Turkey, which appears a significant victory for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and will further shred America’s reputation as a trustworthy ally, the Kurdish agreement with Damascus increases Moscow’s leverage because it pushes for a post-conflict settlement. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and called on Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League, ending its suspension that began in 2011.

Erdogan’s offensive complicates matters by obstructing the peace settlement Russia, Iran and Turkey have been pursuing via the so-called Astana process.

As for Iran, another important regional player, it may have no love for the Kurds or the United States but Turkey’s move threatens its hopes of controlling a northern territorial corridor linking it with its Shia allies in Lebanon, what Israel calls a “corridor of terror.”

No mention of the European Union has been made because it plays but a small part in the crisis. Germany, France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland suspended arms deliveries to Turkey, which will hardly have any effect on that country’s capacity to wage war.

The EU foreign ministers stopped short of implementing a formal EU-wide weapons embargo on Turkey. They condemned Ankara’s “military action” in Syria and its drilling for oil and gas off the coast of Cyprus.

The United Kingdom was reluctant to go along with the text and got an extra line inserted that stressed that “Turkey is a key partner of the European Union.” In truth, the European Union has very little leverage with Turkey because it relies on Ankara to help manage migration. Without military power, the European Union cannot properly defend its interests.

European politicians are only now waking up to the fact that without military power they are, outside international trade, a minnow.

The European Union depends on the whim of the United States and sometimes Russia but the former is a long-standing ally, which decided, before Donald Trump was elected president, to reduce its footprint in the Middle East.

Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt recently said: “Europe must take its destiny into its own hands by building a defence union.” He was making the case that the European Union needed to be part of an emerging “world order that is based on empires.”

It is time the European Union gave up its long-held dream that the world would move towards a law-based system. The world led by China, Russia and increasingly the United States will be based on power rather than rules.

It is worth pointing out that the European Union shares with Russia grave concern about the risk of thousands of Islamic State prisoners escaping from prisons managed by Kurdish militias in northern Syria. Does that fear bring the two parties together even if on other issues, such as Ukraine, they are apart?

Even in their worst nightmares European policymakers never dreamed that the United States would withdraw from the Middle East, let alone treat them with the disdain Trump is showing them.

In the 1990s, the real challenge for the European Union was that “on the one side, it faced an area in which all the conflicts and instability typical of a post-imperial area were developing at great speed, while on the other side the Western ‘number one,’ which, until then, had acted as a benevolent hegemon, was turning into an imperial player which played scant regards to the wishes and ideas of its allies.”

Those prophetic words were written by Herfried Munkler in a lucid analysis published in 2005. The challenge Munkler described remains.

European leaders must take care not to simply provide resources to its operations and step in afterward to handle the consequences, without having any say in the fundamental political decisions. They must not downplay the fact that the erosion of US leadership will pose greater problems than it would solve.

The European Union’s borders are not the same as those of the Schengen Area or those of the eurozone. To make the European Union’s frontiers more stable requires exercising influence in the periphery of the European Union in ways that have a greater affinity with the requirements of empire than with those of an interstate system.

Whether Europe chooses to borrow from the imperial model is anybody’s guess. What is hardly in doubt is that, brave words notwithstanding, it enjoys no more than a walk-on role in the crisis engulfing northern Syria.

American unreliability in the Middle East is nothing new but never before has an alliance with the United States been so callously shredded. The Kurds had harsh historical experience of this in 1991 when the United States left Saddam Hussein in power at the end of the first Gulf War.

The Saudis may reflect on how solid — or transactional — US support for them is. That might lead them to start mending fences with Iran, spiking the guns of US and Israeli hawks who have pushed so hard for war with Tehran.

That turn would certainly be welcomed by the European Union and allow it to reassume a more important political and diplomatic role in the Middle East.