By Arab News
By Cornelia Meyer*
The US’ withdrawal of its troops from northern Syria and Turkey’s subsequent incursion into Kurdish territory was followed by global outrage. Western media outlets were quick to criticize America’s betrayal of its erstwhile allies, the Kurds. Western governments looked on with dismay as Daesh fighters escaped from the prisons guarded by the Kurds, whose new imperative was to defend their lives and their territory. Many of the escaped fighters are nationals of the European governments who did not want to take them back, and instead wanted them to stand trial in Syria or Iraq.
To add insult to injury, it was Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia who came up with a solution to the problem. Turkey will not go further into Syrian territory than its specified corridor and Russia will police a cordon to keep Bashar Assad’s army away from the Turkish army and border.
This is indeed an unusual situation. Turkey is the easternmost member of NATO and it is now NATO’s foe Russia that is policing the border of its friend because NATO’s de facto leader, the US, withdrew its troops. To be clear, measured by the number of troops committed, the biggest member of NATO, the US, withdrew and the second largest, Turkey, has its borders policed by Russia.
Europe is uneasy about the situation. Firstly, there is much sympathy with the Kurds. Secondly, European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands have big Turkish and Kurdish minorities, which sometimes take their acrimony to the streets. Thirdly, the EU listened when Erdogan said he would open Turkey’s borders and release millions more Syrian refugees into Europe. That is precisely what the EU had tried to avoid when it made a deal with Turkey in 2016, whereby Ankara sealed its borders in exchange for the promise of €6 billion ($6.6 billion) in aid to help the country cope with the economic fallout of what was, at the time, many fewer than the current 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting.
Europe’s relationship with Turkey is complex and often fraught. On the one hand, European governments deplore Erdogan’s move toward authoritarianism and the lack of press freedom in the country. On the other hand, they need Turkey’s cooperation and goodwill with regard to refugees, which Europe is ill-equipped to deal with. Then there are, of course, the dual Turkish-European nationals whose parents came to Europe many decades ago to provide labor, fueling the postwar economic boom. Many of these are Kurds.
So Europe was quick to criticize Turkey’s role in the recent developments in northeastern Syria, but it had no solutions. Germany, in particular, has a lot at stake. It is a senior NATO and EU member country, is home to many Turkish dual nationals (some of them of Kurdish descent) and is so far the only EU country generous enough to take in a million refugees since 2016.
It therefore comes as little surprise that German politicians are pondering what to do next. The head of the Bundestag’s select committee on foreign affairs, Norbert Roettgen, has long argued that the E3 — Germany, France and the UK — should bond more closely when it comes to foreign policy interests, particularly in the Middle East — and Iran and Syria to be precise. While his aspirations should be applauded, the stark realities of Brexit are probably putting a spanner in the works.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, also known as AKK, suggested that NATO’s European allies should patrol the Turkish-Syrian border. She got much flak for it. For one, she had not sufficiently networked her idea with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, preferring to inform him of the decision by SMS. NATO was also not keen. While the US welcomed her initiative, the secretary of defense said he would not commit any troops to it (remember the US has just withdrawn from that particular area). NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that any solution to the issue should come from the UN. This is understandable in light of the fact that it is America’s archenemy Russia that currently patrols the border (which would probably result in Moscow vetoing any UN Security Council resolution), and that he probably does not want to get dragged into this particular quagmire, nor does he want to aggravate the situation any further.
Whatever you say about AKK and Roettgen’s ideas, at least they are trying to live up to the fact that Europe is a near neighbor to the Middle East and needs to develop its own policies.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources