Syria’s Kurds, who fought heroically against the Islamic State for years—only to be abandoned following President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops—are now under attack from a Turkish invasion designed to carve out a 20-mile buffer zone in northern Syria. Pounded by artillery barrages and airstrikes, with the civilian population victimized by atrocities committed by Ankara-backed militias, Syria’s Kurds have one more reason to invoke the ancient Kurdish lament: “We have no friends but the mountains.”
Now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to transfer a significant portion of the refugees from other parts of Syria currently living in Turkey into this zone in an effort to manipulate the demographics of the region and lessen domestic political pressures as resentment of refugees rises.
Trump’s decision is obviously a regional strategic disaster. The Syrian Kurds, having fought to defeat the Islamic State, have now been thrown to the wolves. The White House has abandoned not only reliable and steadfast military allies but also any serious effort to guard the tens of thousands of Islamic State prisoners whom European countries are refusing to take back, put on trial, or deradicalize.
It “worries us enormously” that the Islamic State “could refind its breathing space inside that territory,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said earlier this week. Her designated successor, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, wrung his hands as if he was responding to the obvious follow-up question: What are you going to do about it? “We don’t have magic powers,” he lamented. British diplomats reportedly even chafed at the use of the word “condemn” in a communique on Turkey’s offensive.
European leaders seem to have forgotten that the lesson from the Balkan wars of the 1990s is that the rules-based international order is defended not though magic powers but by being able to deploy military force to deter and punish aggression.
“If the American troops wouldn’t have withdrawn, this attack would have been impossible. The American troop withdrawal was a condition in order to make the attack possible,” Borrell added. He did not mention the obvious: There were no European troops ready to replace the departing Americans, and there was no will to use them even if had they been available.
Lacking the will and deployable manpower to swiftly step into a power vacuum, Europe has been reduced to an impotent spectator. Now it is Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who have filled the void, styling themselves as the Kurds’ protectors and guarantors of regional stability.
The damage to European security from a possible Islamic State revival after Trump’s capricious Syria withdrawal is far from the most alarming implication for Europe. He has turned the deterrent power of the United States into a massive indirect protection racket.
Anyone who depends on the United States for its security has been put on notice: Serve Trump’s personal agenda (by fabricating corruption investigations into his rivals’ children, for example) or you’re on your own.
This should send a chill down the spines of Eastern Europe’s leaders. The Baltic states could easily be overrun by Russia. And Poland, where the just-reelected Law and Justice government has failed to maintain military readiness, now has to wonder whether it can rely on Washington.
Warsaw has tried flattery by inviting 3,500 U.S. troops to what was almost named “Fort Trump,” and Poland, much poorer than the United States, has offered to pay some of the costs. But there were 2,000 U.S. troops actually fighting alongside the SDF against the Islamic State. If the going gets tough, what is Trump more likely to do: have the 3,500 troops stand their ground, or threaten to pull them out in order to extort more from Poland?
Trump’s pullout from Syria is a tabloid-friendly illustration of the consequences of three decades of European security free-riding. After the end of the Cold War, the United States lost its strategic need to protect Europe. Europe may still be an economic superpower—able to impose global obligations on even the largest companies—but it is not a military superpower.
Wealth is only as good as the rules-based international order that upholds property rights, free trade, and market-based economic institutions. Or, in other words: That pile of gold is very useful—until the people with guns come and take it.
The EU is an economic superpower because it possesses the institutional structures to act together. The European Commission, not individual member states, sets trade policy. Individual members can’t be bought off, because they don’t make the relevant decisions, while the EU as a whole is too big to be pushed around. These lessons need to be applied to European defense before it’s too late.
Though the EU has been making progress—with permanent structured cooperation, the European Defense Fund, and now a new Directorate-General for Defense—Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds should serve as a warning.
Without a shared defense policy, pooled military assets, and common military doctrine, the continent’s eastern flank will be vulnerable. This cannot be a matter of trading off the interests of Mediterranean countries, which face the consequences of instability and state failure in North Africa and the Middle East, with those of the Baltic states and Poland, which are justifiably concerned by Russian aggression.
A Europe with fully integrated European defense policy, acting on behalf of a unified bloc of nearly 500 million people and $15 trillion of annual GDP after Brexit, would be able to take the initiative in international crises, not simply be buffeted by them. It could have deployed forces to replace the U.S. troops in Syria and used its strength to broker peace talks. A Europe without that power is just a fat goose waiting to be plucked.