U.S. retreat from Syria reveals Europe’s weakness as global actor

It is not the case that Europe does not possess the military and economic power to replace the role of US troops in Syria.

By RALPH SCHOELLHAMMER
January 8, 2019 21:42
SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES and US troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah.

SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES and US troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, in November.. (photo credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)

 
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The US retreat from Syria has led to speculations who will fill the emerging power vacuum, but the most likely candidates are Russia, Turkey and Iran. One player, however, is conspicuously absent in these discussions: The European Union. Although the EU has geopolitical interests in the Middle East that are equal to those of the aforementioned countries, nobody is seriously expecting Brussels to deepen its footprint in the region.

It is not the case that Europe does not possess the military and economic power to replace the role of US troops in Syria. The EU’s combined military spending is among the world’s top three and 3,000 troops stand ready for immediate deployment as a rapid reaction force. Although the deployment of European forces in Syria would be a logistical challenge, it is likely that the United States would be willing to provide needed support. Equally important is the economic weight the EU can muster in an attempt to restrain the ambitions of its geopolitical competitors:

The EU is the world’s second largest economy with a GDP of $19 trillion and a population of some 512 million people. Russia, Turkey and Iran together command a population of 304 million and a combined GDP of about $2.8 trillion. European states are the main foreign investors in Russia and Europe is the key export market for Turkey. Economic relationships with Iran are more complicated, but Tehran depends on the reluctance of Brussels to fully embrace the sanctions favored by the Trump administration. Even energy dependence from Russia seems less dramatic if one considers that Russia needs the revenue from its exports as much as Europe needs natural gas. With the United States becoming virtually energy independent, a refreshed transatlantic relationship with regards to energy would provide significant leverage over Moscow.

Contrary to the US, developments in the Middle East and North Africa directly affect the political future of the European project. In recent elections, voters signaled their leaders that they want to see immigration from outside Europe curbed. With the inability of established political parties to sufficiently address the problem, newcomers from the Right have been gaining ground. This is problematic for Brussels, since most anti-migration parties also sympathize or openly embrace an anti-EU line. Countries like Turkey are fully aware of this and use their ability to influence migration movements from the Middle East as a bargaining chip in their relations with the European Union. Even the current preoccupation about Brexit would be unthinkable without the issue of migration, which was the main motivation of those who voted to leave the union. One should also not forget that from Brussels to Berlin, ISIS-inspired terrorism hit Europe harder than the US, making a more interventionist stance in the Middle East all the more reasonable.

European reliance on US forces to fight the root causes of its migration crisis would be tantamount to Washington calling for an EU intervention in Central and South America to stop drugs and immigrants trying to make their way across the southern border. It has become clear in recent years that the European Union has not developed an alternative to traditional geopolitics, but cultivated an absence from it. Talks about a European Army, as recently announced by French President Emmanuel Macron, make a regular appearance in discussions about the future of Europe, but those involved know that the likelihood of concrete action remains low.

Although a majority of Europeans is in favor of a common defense and security policy, the idea of actually sending troops under a European flag into harms way is currently not a political option, taking any form of hard-power off the table for the EU’s foreign policy makers. The factual strength of a united Europe becomes meaningless if the entire continent is in a psychological state that prevents it from being used, thereby allowing every crisis in its vicinity to fester and become a growing threat to what is left of European cohesion. Much less than a crisis of capacities, Europe has a crisis of willpower.


In this crisis, however, also waits an opportunity. For both the United States and Europe, the greatest challenge is what is happening south of their borders, and it would be understandable if the Trump administration would refocus its energy on supporting a more prosperous South America to resolve its migration problem and address the opioid crisis, in addition to its ongoing strategic obligations in the Pacific.

For Europe, the key question is how to foster enough stability in the Middle East and North Africa to get a grip on the seemingly endless stream of migrants. All this would have to happen under the awareness that neither Russia, Turkey nor Iran have an interest in truly supporting an end to the ongoing crisis in the region, since it provides them with the strongest bargaining chip against the Europeans: Instability means more refugees and displaced persons, which is the most contentious topic tearing at the European idea. Regardless of one’s position, it is no exaggeration to say that the success or failure of European integration will hinge on the way the migration crisis will be handled in the near future.

The most delicate role in this process falls to the United States, which must encourage not only increased European defense spending, but also support European confidence to play a more active geopolitical role, employing all the economic and military tools at its disposal. Whether through NATO or other forms of cooperation, a new form of geopolitical burden sharing between Europe and the US is necessary and would also fulfill the most important condition of Trump’s foreign policy agenda: America first does not have to mean America alone. The US retreat from Syria has led to speculations who will fill the emerging power vacuum, but the most likely candidates are Russia, Turkey and Iran. One player, however, is conspicuously absent in these discussions: The European Union. Although the EU has geopolitical interests in the Middle East that are equal to those of the aforementioned countries, nobody is seriously expecting Brussels to deepen its footprint in the region.

The writer is a lecturer in Economics and Political Science at Webster University Vienna.

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