Sven Biscop / Oct 2019
The European Union and its Member States blame US President Donald Trump for withdrawing American troops from Northern Syria, thus paving the way for Turkey to send its armed forces across the border and create a self-declared “security zone”. Not for the first time, our Kurdish allies, who fought on our side against IS, are being sacrificed. In 1991 already, during the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had been driven out of Kuwait but was allowed to brutally suppress a Kurdish rising inside Iraq. What will happen now with the captured IS fighters whom Kurdish forces were guarding, no one can tell.
It is difficult to take the European position seriously. Apparently Europe does feel that a western military presence on the ground in North Syria was necessary for its security. But Europe was not willing to deploy forces itself. Yet Turkey and Syria border on Europe, not on the US, and Europe will suffer the consequences if violence escalates again. For once, one cannot blame Trump when he states that the Europeans must assume more responsibility.
This American attitude is not new. The US will, of course, assist Europe through NATO in case of an attack on our own territory. But ever since the end of the Cold War, the US has signaled time and time again that it is up to Europe itself to tackle security problems around Europe. The US will not do that for us. The Europeans, however, pretended not to hear. If they could convince themselves that whatever happened, the US cavalry would always come and solve it, then it was not urgent to strengthen their own defence capabilities. Until the time comes when the US cavalry does not show up, or retreats prematurely…
And yet today’s situation had been predicted from the start of the war against IS. That IS would be defeated was inevitable, but the war in Syria would end only when all other parties would be exhausted. As expected, the result was a stalemate: different groups control parts of Syrian territory, from which the Assad regime cannot expel them, but they can no longer threaten Assad either. From the moment the war was launched, a comprehensive strategy ought to have been developed: which groups deserve our permanent political, economic and military support? In other words, which groups cannot be abandoned to their fate.
The Europeans never wanted to have that debate, however. That attitude was the opposite of strategy: participating in combat operations, without any idea of the desired political end state that the war should produce.
Now it is too late. Turkish troops have crossed into Syria, and the Europeans will not confront the armed forces of a NATO ally. The EU threatens not to provide any stabilisation and development assistance to Turkish-held territory if the rights of the citizens are not respected, but that is unlikely to stop President Erdogan.
The current sad situation confirms once again what the EU already knows, but has yet to really act upon: the EU needs strategic autonomy. That means, first and foremost, the capacity to mount military operations in its neighbourhood relying only on European assets, because nobody will defend Europe’s interests in its stead. Since 1999, this is the official objective of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Twenty years later, we could perhaps turn it into reality, thanks to instruments such as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Commission’s European Defence Fund (EDF). With a former defence minister at the helm as President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, we cannot fail again.
The EU needs the capacity to project military power. Not to intervene in each and every crisis – quite the contrary, the use of force must remain an instrument of last resort. But an actor that does not posses military power, will inevitably end up in situations in which he cannot act, although his security interests are at stake, and in spite of his great political and economic power. Only the EU can ensure that Europe must never again watch from the side-lines.