The situation in Syria has suddenly exposed the growing wedge between the United States and its European allies on major global flashpoints. The Istanbul Summit on October 27, which was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron along with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was lucid example of this new development in transatlantic politics. The apparent objective of the summit was to find a viable solution to the Syrian imbroglio, but the fact is that the urgency of situation in Idlib, the last stronghold of the rebels, was the top priority for the all participants – but for different reasons for each of them. A “lasting peace in Idlib” was the main theme of the joint statement of the summit and it reflected a kind of desperation among them to find an immediate ceasefire there. The presence of Key EU members, in the stark absence of the United States, sent an acidic message to Washington that its policy in Syria will face stiff resistance from its chronic allies across the Atlantic. There are high expectations, knowing well the impulsive foreign policy of President Trump; the United States will further harden its stance on the Syrian equation in the coming days.
“Our interests in Syria are to finish the destruction of the ISIS territorial caliphate and deal with the continuing threat of Islamic State (IS) terrorism, and to worry about the presence of Iranian militias and regular forces”, is how US National Security Advisor John Bolton tried recently to lay down the main planks of the American thinking on the Syrian conflict, which means that Washington is anticipating a long war in the foreseeable future. This is in quite contrast to the tone and tenor of the Istanbul Meet, where everyone was trying to discuss the early possibilities of normalisation of the situation. Free and fair elections, safe and voluntary return of refugees and establishment of a stable administration were the other objectives of the Istanbul Summit, where it was categorically accepted that Assad has won the war and now things should make turn towards normalisation in Syria. For the last several years, the Syrian civil war has been haunting the peace and stability of the region due to its metastatic effects, and, at the same time, it has also seriously distressed the global powers in addition to the regional neighbours.
Europeans’ fear is of different nature. They feel threatened by the unabated protraction of the Syrian conflict in many ways. At the moment, their prime concern is how to stop the further influx of Syrian refugees to their continent. Idlib, one of the 14 governorates of Syria is strategically located in the northwestern part of the country on the border with Turkey, is inhabiting almost three million people (including large number of internally disturbed people who were forced by the continued insurgency to flee their homes in other provinces). According to a rough estimate by Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for OCHA, the UN’s emergency and coordination group, more than 800,000 people could be forced to move out of Idlib in case of an attack. Constantly experiencing brutal poverty in vast camps, these internally displaced people in Idlib represent a grave humanitarian catastrophe. Over 1.6 million people are completely dependent on food assistance from the UN agencies. The Europeans’ interest in the Idlib crisis is directly related to their security apprehensions. To put it in simple words, the Europeans are not ready to welcome any more Syrian refuges, which may include jihadis and militants. The continuing war, and any all-out attack to acquire the control of Idlib, will further aggravate the refugee crisis and trigger a new wave of refugees to Europe.
The other issue where the European capitals are not in line with Washington is the Iran nuclear deal – another inferno which is also indirectly related to the Syrian conflict as well as Europe’s security in general. Most of the European leaders, unlike President Trump who unilaterally withdrew from the deal and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran, vehemently support the Iran nuclear deal in their head-on clash with the Trump Administration. The Europeans feel that the Americans are imposing extremely tough sanctions on Iran with a view to incite chaos and niggle the Iranian people to rise against the government so as to implement the “regime change” in Iran strategy of Mike Pompeo and Bolton. But the Europeans don’t buy this Trump philosophy of regime change in Iran. They believe that Iranians don’t have any alternate leadership available to replace the existing ruling assemblage. Any efforts to make unnatural change of power in Tehran will drastically destabilise the whole region, resulting in a humanitarian crisis of extreme magnitude.
A power vacuum will lead to a fierce power struggle in Iran, which will obviously instigate a massive civil war and it will infiltrate into the neighbouring countries where Iran is already embroiled in complicated conflicts stretching from Afghanistan to the borders of Israel. Any further destabilisation in the Middle East will directly threaten the peace and stability in Europe. So, it does not come as a surprise to see the two most important members of the EU, France and Germany, to actively work for the regional peace in the Middle East. Yes, Europe’s vigorous drive for stability in the region, in direct collision with the US policy, is partly rooted in humanitarian concern but even more strongly linked to the primary goal of evading more turmoil seeping into Europe. At the moment, it seems, all the stakeholders including the United States and the EU and Russia, are re-adjusting their policies to the emerging ground realities in the Middle East. And the Europeans feel that they have enough leverage to at least bridle the selfish-ness of the American foreign policy.
The writer is a freelance columnist.