Trump’s Abandonment of Syria’s Kurds: A Catalyst for Division in Europe?

14 Nov, 2019    ·   5628

Pieter-Jan Dockx considers the ramifications of the president's decision for politics within Europe as well as the security and foreign policy dimension

Pieter-jan Dockx
Pieter-jan Dockx
Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)

On 6 October, after a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, US President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of US forces from Kurdish-held areas in Syria. The move allowed Turkish President Erdogan to launch his long sought-after military operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—a group that formed the backbone of the US-led campaign against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria, but is considered a terrorist organisation in Turkey. Trump’s decision will not only have long-term consequences with regard to Syria, West Asia, and foreign relations in general, but is also likely to impact European politics.

Repercussions for Europe

Trump’s decision could reinvigorate the IS, which in turn will negatively impact Europe. Due to the Turkish threat, the YPG has halted its operations against the IS and relocated forces northwards. The ensuing security vacuum could form an opportunity for the militant group to regain strength. Following the Turkish offensive, IS militants have already escaped from Kurdish-controlled prisons owing to lack of manpower. European policymakers would want to avoid an emboldened IS—after all, the IS attacks in Paris and Brussels were coordinated from Syria and carried out by militants who returned from the country.

Instability in Syria could again lead to high numbers of migration to Europe. During the 2015 European refugee crisis, around 4,30,000 Syrian refugees relocated to Europe as a result of the Syrian civil war. Recently, the rate of arrivals through the eastern Mediterranean route has again started increasing. With growing instability in Syria, Erdogan threatening to send Syrian refugees living in Turkey towards Europe, and no viable European refugee relocation mechanism in place, European leaders fear a repeat of the 2015 scenario.

The White House’s move to end its support for the YPG and leave Syria also means that the European powers have lost their main allies­—and therefore the associated leverage—in the conflict. In the absence of an effective strategy on Syria, the Europeans have mostly relied on the US and its Kurdish allies on the ground to fight the IS and maintain influence, albeit limited, on the broader conflict. With the US gone and the YPG’s subsequent re-alignment with the Assad regime, it will be increasingly difficult for the Europeans to achieve their objectives in Syria.

By retracting the defence guarantees for the YPG vis-à-vis Turkey, President Trump is also casting doubts over the role of the US as the guarantor of Europe’s security in relation to Russia. Uncertainty over US commitment to NATO allies had already emerged during the George W Bush presidency, but has peaked under Trump, who has called NATO "obsolete." This is especially alarming for the Baltic states and Poland, who rely heavily on the US for security.

Rapprochement with Russia

European policymakers could manage all these negative consequences by improving their relationship with Russia. While Russia was already the most important actor in Syria, the US withdrawal has made Moscow the indispensable power broker in the conflict. Whether the objective is to fight the IS, stem refugee flows, or influence Syria’s post-conflict transition, none is likely to be achieved without involving Russia. Moreover, the ineffectiveness of the EU strategy of sanctioning the Assad regime and withholding reconstruction funding further increases the need for engagement with Moscow.

The increasingly unreliable nature of the US commitment to defend Europe in the face of possible Russian aggression can similarly be overcome by strengthening ties with Moscow. Since the Bush Jr era, European powers have contemplated stronger military capabilities independent from the US. While steps have been taken in this direction—especially during the Trump presidency—matching Russia’s military capabilities is likely to take decades. Hence, without the US, deterrence is not a viable option for the EU in the short-term, necessitating the need for a strategy of appeasement.

European Division

Whether European policymakers choose to confront the repercussions or decide to restore their relationship with Russia to mitigate them, divisions are likely to arise, both within and between countries. This division could in turn hinder EU policy-making in other unconnected domains.

Islamist attacks and large inflows of refugees have both been important drivers of polarisation and the rise of the far-right. The issue of immigration has also led to disagreements within the EU; between those advocating relocation quotas for refugees and those opposing it. Recent regional elections in both Germany and Italy have reaffirmed the continued strength of its far-right parties. Differences over refugee quotas also remain, as the leaders of France, Germany and Italy struggle to make the other EU member-states agree to a voluntary relocation system.

Rapprochement with Moscow, on the other hand, is likely to exacerbate Europe’s East-West divide. Western European countries like Germany and France—the two main foreign policy actors in the EU—have traditionally been more dovish with regard to Russia. Recently, French President Macron called for a reset of EU relations with Russia. However, a policy of appeasement will face opposition from Central and Eastern European states, who fear Russian aggression akin to its intervention in Ukraine.

Regardless of how Europe decides to deal with this new reality, Trump’s decision to abandon US' Kurdish allies in Syria is likely to trigger division on the continent. The anticipated disagreement over migration or the EU’s Russia policy could subsequently also spill over to other policy domains—like climate change—further exacerbating the EU’s already complex and slow-moving decision-making process.