They are good at dismay, the Europeans. Their cheek-clutching horror at US President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was worthy of Munch’s “The Scream.”
But to have reacted with surprise at this much-telegraphed decision reveals a staggering level of naivety. Worse still, their failure to anticipate the behavior of America’s mercurial President reveals both cowardice and stupidity — not among the tiny number of special forces from the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and elsewhere, who were sent to help with the defeat of ISIS, of course. But certainly among the leaders of wealthy western nations that have the greatest strategic interest in what happens in the Middle East.
Trump may lack historical insight, or even much respect for the advice that top level American advisers and scholars can offer when it comes to Syria. It’s hardly surprising that the President repeatedly singles out France, Germany and the UK for failing to address the issue of returning ISIS fighters, or their families, who languish in northern Syrian camps, fomenting jihadist rage in the pressure cookers of social discontent.
Several officers in charge of the US operations in Afghanistan told me last year that the mission was just a ‘tweet away from strategic failure’ — meaning the top brass feared their President would precipitously pull them out of that theater before they were ready.
So, we have an unpredictable American commander in chief. But he does have a consistent record of making good on foreign policy pronouncements — no matter how wrong-headed his critics believe them to be.
He also has a record of demanding greater contributions from European countries to the NATO kitty, and has been publicly allergic to US interventions in the Middle East for years.
This is a man who has threatened to dump on Britain’s doorstep ISIS prisoners currently in US custody, like El Shafee ElSheikh and Alexanda Kotey, members of a British ISIS cell accused of beheading foreign aid workers and journalists.
Trump has called European nations a “tremendous disappointment” for their failure to bring their ISIS fighters home.
“I actually said to them, if you don’t take them, I’m going to drop them right on your border. And you could have fun capturing them again. But the United States taxpayer is not going to pay for the next 50 years,” Trump said during a news conference announcing the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over the weekend.
Britain’s response to the capture of the alleged killers has been to remove their citizenship, a move as useful as shoving its collective national head in a bucket.
Having seen Trump nearly abandon Syria in December, surely it would have made sense if the UK, France, Germany, Italy et al reinforced the international coalition effort inside Syria.
The US-backed SDF say they have about 800 European fighters in their prisons, as well as another 700 women and some 1,500 children in camps, who fled ISIS-held territory when the so-called “caliphate” was crushed. There are very few Americans.
On top of that, there’s the gigantic matter of refugees. Turkey is hosting some 3.5 million Syrians. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to open the country’s borders and allow another flood of humanity to engulf the European continent.
There have been repeated warnings from the intelligence community that, with the collapse of the caliphate, there could, or would, be a renewed effort by ISIS members to attack targets in Europe. Those warnings have increased in volume now that Turkey and its allies have moved into northern Syria, where the future of the SDF, custodians of so many battle-hardened terrorists, looks precarious.
It may never have been possible to prevent Turkey’s incursion, and the subsequent allied abandonment of the SDF, which has lost 11,000 men and women fighting against ISIS, partly on behalf of the West.
But if the counter-ISIS operations in Syria had been led by European forces, a sudden whimsical withdrawal by the US would have been avoided.
There have only been some 2,000 US ground troops in northern Syria. Dozens of other European commandos have worked with them. It should not have been beyond the wit of Europe leaders to take control of the operation early this year.
But, as things turned out, it was.
The mess was described to me by one European intelligence official and one senior military figure in barracks-room terms that begin with “goat” and “cluster.”
It is not, however, too late. But it is time that European nations, who have the most to lose and most to gain from a stable Middle East in general, and Syria especially, focus on the chaos on their doorstep.
Their armed forces need to be able to function outside of an American life support system and show some initiative, rather than wailing when the White House does something surprising.