Sunday

20th Jan 2019

Opinion

Europe can fill security gap left by US in Syria

  • Such a scenario - the US giving free reign to Turkey to invade north east Syria - would have grave consequences for Europe, which has hardly been able to cope with the wave of migrants from Syria and which has left the EU being heavily dependent on Turkey (Photo: gov.uk)

The decision by president Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria has sent shock waves throughout Syria, the Middle East and the entire globe.

It has left many officials and observers, not the least in Washington, flabbergasted about what is going to happen if the US actually withdraw all of its troops from north east Syria, as president Trump has announced to do.

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The decision was received with a great deal of astonishment given that in recent months numerous US senior officials, among them secretary of defence James Mattis and US national security advisor John Bolton, have all expressed that so long Iran operates in the Syrian conflict, the US will not consider leaving the country.

The US presence seemed thus to have been broadened from just fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) to also checking the Iranian presence.

There was equally a geopolitical rationale for US presence given the heavy presence of the Russians in Syria.

This view was reinforced by a steady built-up of US forces and its bases throughout north east Syria in recent months.

Apart from the potential strategic fallout of the sudden withdrawal of US forces, there are also serious concerns among US policy-makers and some European officials about the immediate consequences of this move.

The complete withdrawal of US forces could be a stimulant for ISIS to re-emerge and regroup.

It could activate sleeping cells in ISIS heartland al-Raqqa and in towns and cities across north eastern Syria where the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), along the international coalition, have fought so hard to free from ISIS in recent months and years.

Another short-term concern is Turkey which sees the creation of a predominantly Kurdish entity in its southern borders as a strategic threat to its national security.

Turkey regards the Syrian Kurdish PYD and its militant unit, the YPG (Peoples Protection Units) as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK.

In recent weeks, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has again started to harden the rhetoric against the Kurdish entity in Syria and has threatened to invade areas that are controlled by the SDF.

The decision to withdraw US forces from Syria was followed by a phone conversation between Trump and Erdogan which has fuelled speculation that the decision to withdraw US forces could be part of a bilateral deal among the two presidents.

The presence of US troops has been regarded as the main deterrent for Turkey not to make incursions into the Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates.

In recent years, the SDF has benefitted from the relative stability of the north eastern corner of Syria to carve up a region, called Rojava, and establish a functioning civilian administration.

The Kurds?

With the US forces leaving, there is a realistic scenario that the Turks would seize the opportunity to invade Rojava, and in so doing, kill the aspirations of the Kurds for autonomy in a federal Syria in the future, similar to what their Kurdish brethren enjoy in Iraq.

Whether it is a re-emerged ISIS, or a Turkish invasion, one certain outcome under both potential scenarios is that the Rojava region would be significantly destabilised.

This will potentially create a humanitarian disaster with much bloodshed and a flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees as a result.

Such a scenario would have grave consequences for Europe which has hardly been able to cope with the wave of migrants from Syria and which has left the EU being heavily dependent on Turkey to contain that problem.

It is therefore imperative for the EU and its member states, particularly France and Germany, to use all their diplomatic tools to preserve the stability in the Rojava region of Syria.

In addition, there lies an opportunity for France and Germany to consider military options. At a first glance, such a move would appear totally improbable.

However when studied, it is neither unachievable nor would it be controversial. Both France and Germany are part of the international coalition against ISIS.

France and Germany

In addition, France is known to have already military presence in Rojava and France has, in the past, undertaken effective unilateral airstrike campaigns against ISIS.

Preserving a peaceful and secular Rojava by filling the security gap from the departure of US forces would constitute a bold act in defence of humanity by European powers.

It will send a powerful and unequivocal signal to the US and the entire world that the freedom loving people of Syria will not be abandoned and their fate is not for trade-off.

Moreover, such a move would serve the interest of Europe in different ways.

A military presence of France, supported by Germany would avert an almost certain humanitarian disaster resulting from the scenarios discussed above.

It will also pave the way for the two European powers, and by extension the EU, to finally play a meaningful role in Syria.

An initial Franco-German military presence could in the long term be transformed into an EU civilian mission, paving the way for reconstruction and stabilisation of north east Syria.

Feeling ashamed for abandoning the Syrian Kurds, the US republican senator Lindsay Graham called president Trump's decision to withdraw US forces from Syria "a stain on the honour of the US".

It is time for Europe to act decisively to protect the abandoned people of Rojava region in Syria and prevent another humanitarian crisis.

It is also time for president Emmanuel Macron and chancellor Angela Merkel to walk the talk on the idea of a European army by sending their troops to Rojava, filling the security gap the United States is leaving behind.

Zana Kurda is a PhD researcher at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels

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