Passivity makes Europe lose its influence on situation in its environment. With time, the situation gets worse, because of the “atrophy”- unused muscles disappear. As long as the dictators did the work, there was no need to use the European force. That situation was created by the old-Europe leaders just after I World War. They decided on the route of the border and established artificial countries to protect their colonial interests. Moreover, MENA countries were made up of the European pattern of the modern, centralized country. Till today there is no understanding of the basic fact that those areas have entirely different governance practices that have been lasted for thousands of years. Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul and Basra were for thousands of year constantly rich and autonomous trade centers.
Today, this imposed form is bursting at the seams, and the tired of prison-style management communities continuously strive to gain the possibility to decide about its own fate. This process can be limited by feeding dictators with humanitarian aid and weapons and turning a blind eye to continuous ethnocide. However, the experience of the Arab Spring shows that in the long run, it is an ineffective strategy because it strengthens the internal tension in these countries. That tensions accumulate and explode. From 2015 we are observing how Iran, Turkey and Russia extinguishes this fire with gasoline.
What can be done? The worst choice is to wait idly until non-European countries bring their order into European surroundings. It is naïve to believe that the order established by others will not threat European security. The current situation, however, is nothing but Damocles’ sword – the influx of refugees and illegal economic migration will only increase; fragile states in the European environment will become weaker, and Russia and Turkey will continue to violate territorial integrity accordingly to their arbitrary zones of influence or together with other actors will decide on new, fragile dictatorships in MENA region.
The fact is that European countries have common security interests. Still, at the same time, there is a widespread opinion that they have no common instruments that could secure its realization – this is a myth. The only thing missing is the will of collective action. The potential is enormous: most of the European countries are both NATO members; there is an institution of EU Battlegroups and blooming cooperation on security and defense issues.
In October 2019, Trump announced that it would immediately withdraw American troops from Syria. He did not warn or agree on anything with European allies. British and French soldiers, which also operated in Syria and depended on American logistics, withdrew almost immediately. All in all, the Americans did not withdraw and even increased its contingent, but the European partners could not afford uncertainty and lost their influence over the situation in Syria.
It was not a mistake to withdraw European troops in such a situation but to make the mission dependent on an ally whose security is not directly related to the result of that mission. The American presence in Syria is not associated with the security of Europe, but rather to have any influence on the fate of Syria and preventing Iran, which would gladly fill the vacuum after American troops. Iran would do it easy because the local population will support anyone who can help them in the fight against the so-called Islamic State and save them from Turkish humanitarian operations. They have no choice because Turkey openly declares that it intends to replace local people with refugees from other areas of Syria who are currently residing in Turkey.
A similar situation with European troops’ presence in Iraq almost occurred in January this year. In contrast, a result of the controversial liquidation of Iranian General and the commander of pro-Iranian militia (which is de iure part of Iraqi Army!) – the Iraqi parliament voted on the expulsion of all foreign troops from Iraq. In this case, too, European forces mostly depend on American infrastructure and logistics in Iraq. However, as soon as the financial situation of Iraq stabilizes or when another favorable time arrives, Iran will be able to force the Baghdad government to expel Western troops from its territory. Iran controls the situation in Iraq with its network of proxies thanks to understanding how societies in Iraq functioning.
Moreover, it is in Europe’s vital interest to monitor and stabilize the situation throughout northern Syria. Unlike the Western wars to date in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easier to determine the conditions of victory and the purpose of presence. What’s more, the West has a partner in place capable of maintaining control over the area, having the legitimacy of local people, and adhering to similar values. Unfortunately, the de facto administration of Southeast Syria is securitized by the Turkish authorities incited by leading pro-Russian populists (i.e., Doğu Perinçek, leader of the Vatan Party). Russia and Turkey are trying to generate a situation in which European decision-makers are convinced that taking action may lead to the breakup of NATO and deep tensions between the EU and Turkey. It’s a misconception based on the soap opera played by Turkish leaders and diplomats but unfortunately speaks to bureaucrats who avoid difficult decisions and who prefers short-term comfort than working on constructive solutions.
There are two main reasons why Europe should consider its presence in northern Syria:
Firstly, it will allow Europe to take part in negotiations regarding the further shape of this country. If post-war Syria continues to be a post-colonial, highly centralized authoritarianism, it doesn’t just mean that the sacrifice of the local population has been wasted. Another civil war will only be a matter of time.
Secondly, Syria can act as an alternative transit route for Iraq hydrocarbons and help diversify European energy sources. There is one condition – peace must prevail in Syria. However, it cannot be fragile, so the causes of the war must be removed. There is no doubt that they relate to the lack of legitimacy of the central government, which is continuously focused on developing its security system to maintain its power. Damascus missed the most crucial threat associated with the hydro-technical project of its northern neighbor and did not react in any way after Turkey cut off the water on the Euphrates in 2010. Mass migration due to lack of water triggered the outbreak of the civil war.
Post-war Syria cannot only care for the interests of the ruling group but must have broad social legitimacy. Federalization seems to be the only promising solution. Still, at the same time, Europe must prevent the reversal of federalization by the dominant ethnoreligious group – that situation took place in Iraq and catalyzed the emergence of the so-called “Islamic State.”
Syria is not seemingly neighboring with Iran, but it’s informally controlling and has an influence on political forces, including armed forces in Iraq. So, peace in Syria will also depend on the situation in Baghdad – and vice versa. The stability of these two countries is interdependent, as the border separating them has no social or geographical background.
Whether Syria and Iraq will continue to be only a source of challenges and threats to Europe, or whether they will become a partner and help stabilize its environment depends on whether Europe wants to shape its security environment actively and directly with instruments appropriate to the actual situation. The future of these countries is too important to leave it in the grace of non-European actors that will not hesitate to use it against Europe.