U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s strongly worded speech in Cairo on January 11 did little to clarify the ongoing confusion over U.S. policy towards Syria. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, there have been at least four policy reversals. First, then-Secretary Rex Tillerson gave a speech calling for maintaining a strong U.S. presence in Syria in order to create a “stable, unified, independent Syria” under a post–Assad leadership, defeat the Islamic State and curtail Iranian influence.
This seemed to be the policy until President Donald Trump suddenly announced plans to withdraw troops from northern Syria on December 19, 2018. To say this came as a shock to America’s European partners is an understatement. French officials reacted by saying that Trump was “cutting corners, risking a serious accident.” German foreign minister Heiko Maas said Trump’s decision would “damage the fight against [Islamic State] and jeopardize the successes already achieved.” But the move was applauded by those closer to the fight with Russia’s Vladimir Putin hailing the decision, calling it “correct.” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling it “right,” while the Iranians said the United States had been wrong “from the start.”
Eleven days later, the somersaults continued. Trump “modified” his position with a policy that can only be described as “Well, not so fast.” Eleven more days and yet another policy announcement was made when Pompeo went to Cairo with a speech replete with resolve, determination and American steadfastness—albeit, widely mocked and condemned in the region. Speaking about both Syria and the Middle East, he stated, “We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows.” He also said that “America will not retreat until the terror fight is over.” Initial comments from adversaries were as swift as they were predictable.
Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted: “Whenever/wherever US interferes, chaos, repression, and resentment follow.” A Russian pundit writing for RT remarked: “[Pompeo] continued with Trump-era policy of not just refusing to read the room but baiting the audience with cocksure declarations of American greatness verging on the evangelical.”
But the “terror fight” will end, or at least the major role the United States plays. At some point the United States will downsize its vast footprint in the region. Or Trump will simply declare it so. The inexorable direction of the U.S. administration is towards less intervention, less engagement, and fewer “dumb wars in the Middle East.” Although Pompeo may trumpet steadfastness, the U.S. president can pivot on a dime. The smart money is on disengagement from the region and anyone who thinks subsequent administrations will rush back in will probably be disappointed.
In filling that vacuum in Syria, expect the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks to rush in or stay in. They have kept their eyes on the prize; to them, it’s not just about Syria but the whole region. Many will vie to fill the wider vacuum, but it won’t be the Europeans.
History Haunts. So Does Today.
If there isn’t a concern in Europe, there should be. A drawdown of even a portion of the vast U.S. military presence in the Middle East cannot be filled by unilateral European national forces or the much-vaunted European Army initiative. Nor could it replace the comprehensive U.S. security commitments in place for decades. As Michael Peck noted there is a significant military capacity shortfall, and the European Army initiative would have to make significant structural changes to fill that vacuum.
But the disagreements go beyond military presence and capabilities. For years, even before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Europe and the United States have been at odds over several key issues in the Middle East. Chief among these differences is policy towards Iran. While the United States is openly hostile toward the Islamic Republic and its perceived expansionist agenda, Europe has been more accommodating, with France enjoying relatively friendly diplomatic relations bolstered by trade. In 2016, France ranked thirteenth among Iran’s suppliers in the world and fourth among EU member states. The same applies to Germany, whose exports to Iran soared last October to $455 million, a surge of 85 percent over the previous year.
This issue is not lost among America’s (post–Obama) Arab allies and Israel. All see Iran as a binary choice and existential threat. Those who try to straddle the Arab/Persian rift do not inspire their trust or confidence, regardless of the number of fighter jets, radios or tactical vehicles purchased by the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. Equipment can be bought, but trust must be earned.
Second, European parliaments are reluctant to support security operations abroad without a direct threat to their homelands. While France, with its historical support for African and Foreign Legion operations, may be the exception, neither the Israelis nor the Arabs are likely to rely on the German Bundestag, the Italian parliament or the Danish Folketing in the event of a crisis. One only need look at the debates on—and delay in—military support to the political solution in the former Yugoslavia to question the outcome of any debate on a Middle East crisis. For the Arabs, recent history does not inspire confidence.
And finally, Europe is not America. For all the talk of “comprehensive approaches,” very few countries in Europe can provide the nonmilitary requirements for pre– or post–conflict solutions, whatever their strengths in rule of law, humanitarian aid and reconciliation.
What Role for Europe?
Despite the often legitimate criticism of U.S. actions, motivations and outcomes, the Middle East would be a very different environment without American hegemony. The Arabs would be forced to develop their own capabilities or, more likely, subcontract them to new hegemons: perhaps the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks, the Chinese, or a condominium amongst all. One thing is certain—any or all of them will be there to play, and there to stay.
China’s growing influence through nonmilitary trade and investment in the Middle East ought to be viewed as equivalent to the military threat presented by the Russians and the ideological threat posed by the Iranians. It’s all about influence in the near- and long-term. While the Americans remain fixated on the Chinese military threat in the South China Sea, a colleague with long experience in the region says: “These days, you can’t swing a dead cat in the region without hitting a Chinese businessman.”
Yet there may still be a role for Europe, if it chooses, and the military can be part of that role. Although lacking in the financial capacity—and possibly even the will—to go it alone militarily, there are some qualitative advantages that Europe’s armies enjoy over the United States that permit European countries to remain relevant in that landscape. Even the American military will concede the Europeans bring competent Special Forces whose ability to carry out “carefully apportioned and usually small but lethal operations” contrasts with the American “big stick” approach.
As Michael Shurkin wrote in 2015: “Whereas the U.S. military tends toward a ‘go big or go home’ approach to war . . . the French military embraces ‘going small.’ They strive for sufficiency and hope to achieve limited goals through the application of the smallest possible measure of force, what they refer to as ‘juste mesure,’ i.e., just enough to get the job done, and no more.”
And just enough often makes the difference, both in terms of success as well as the critical “light footprint” which is far more acceptable to locals. The significant improvement in counter-and anti-terrorism capability in the region is a credit to many, especially the Europeans.
It’s Not Just Security
The growing refugee crisis in Europe means there is an imperative for European countries, individually and collectively, to increase their involvement in the Middle East. For a host of reasons, primarily the humanitarian crisis which has washed up on its shores and the financial and cultural costs that came with the refugees, the long-term solution to Europe’s problem won’t be found internally within their own borders. Americans may like to fight terrorism forward, but the Europeans will have to solve humanitarian crises forward.
Europe must also understand the consequences of yielding significant Western influence in the region. Whether it is further expansion of Chinese trade disparities, Russian military influence or the instability created by Iranian expansionism and regional aspirations, the vacuum left by the United States must be filled by a measure of European involvement. In many ways, the world is a zero-sum game. More Russian territorial influence means less European territorial influence. More Chinese trade crowds out European trade. Iranian ideological expansion displaces Arab cultural norms. All mean “less Europe,” and certainly more instability.
America’s departure will not be leaving the region to itself, but to a free-for-all for others. And to put it bluntly, the others may not (and probably do not) share the vision or values of the European experiment.
If Europe is unwilling to “up its game” when the Americans withdraw, then it may find the only thing worse than U.S. hegemony is everything else.