The piecemeal withdrawal of the USA leaves the field open for the démocratures, particularly since it is all too obvious that Europe is powerless.
The immediate result of the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the blank check given to Recep Erdogan by Donald Trump has been a vast offensive by Turkey to carry out the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, who played the leading role in the military defeat of Islamic State and have had no choice but to turn to Damascus and Moscow in order to survive. It began at Sochi on 22nd October when, at a mini-Yalta, Putin and Erdogan shared out Syria between them. This has major consequences for the Middle East and the whole world. The main beneficiary of the many twists and turns taken by Trump is Putin. Russia is master of Syria. It ensures the survival of Bashar al-Assad; it controls the airspace; together with Syrian and Turkish forces, it patrols all around the “safe zone” that Erdogan set up. It is claiming to be the only protecting power in the Middle East, to which it is now directing its attention (including towards Saudi Arabia and Israel).
Erdogan has achieved all his objectives. He has imposed the creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria where he has eradicated the Kurds and, thanks to European funding, has replaced them by Syrian refugees. He has galvanized Turkish nationalism and re-legitimized his power, which had been weakened by the economic and social crisis, the loss of mayoral control of Istanbul and the increasing number of defections within the AK Party. At the same time, he has announced his intention to acquire nuclear arms and strategic missiles, leading on from the civil nuclear program undertaken with Russia which is costing over 20 billion dollars, and from clandestine collaboration with Abdul Qadeer Khan’s connections in Pakistan. The only drawback for Erdogan is that, like Assad, he is now dependent on Putin.
The third party to gain from Turkish intervention is Islamic State. Although it has gone back underground, it is still active in the Middle East – where it has been carrying out a hundred or so bomb attacks every month – and its ranks will be strengthened by the 10,000 Jihadists who were prisoners of the Kurds. The forced exile of Kurdish civilians and combatants to Iraq is creating a space where an attempt can be made to restore the Caliphate.
The sorry retreat from Syria marks the departure of the USA from the Middle East, as part of its pullback to within its national frontiers. This goes alongside dismantling its alliances and abandoning its allies. Since his election in 2016, Trump’s only guiding light has been domestic policy and his promise to bring home US soldiers deployed in the interminable wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – not forgetting Korea. Unilaterally, he has put a stop to joint maneuvers with South Korea without any quid pro quo from Kim Jong-un who has intensified his test program for missiles and nuclear warheads; he has announced the departure of troops from Afghanistan, which opens the way for the Taliban to set up a new Islamic emirate; he has left Saudi Arabia without support when up against the renewal of Iran’s nuclear program, the increasing number of attacks against oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz, and cruise missile strikes that have halted 50% of Saudi oil production. There is no doubt that withdrawal from Syria is a dress rehearsal for a soon-to-be withdrawal from Iraq.
The piecemeal withdrawal of the USA, barely masked by warlike posturing and carefully staged meetings with the world’s autocrats, leaves the field open for the démocratures [démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship] and the Jihadists, particularly since transatlantic links are being cut and Europe’s powerlessness and divisions are all too obvious.
The West is crumbling before our eyes. We can see the King has no clothes. It no longer has a leader, not since the USA was propelled into protectionism, isolationism and short-sighted nationalism. And these will go on even after Trump’s excesses have ended, for he is not the cause but the consequence of the USA toppling into populism. The West no longer has a strategy because of the course that US foreign policy has taken: whilst claiming to be focusing on defending its vital interests, it has unified the démocratures and brought the democracies into opposition with each other. The West is no longer organized, since the alliances are meaningless, as shown by Turkey’s attitude to NATO, even though it was supposed to be one of its powerful allies.
The former allies of the USA have no other choice than to invest massively in their own security and to take a far more autonomous view of that security.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 28th October 2019)