14 Jul 2020

Conflict and convergence in US and EU interests in the Middle East

Chris Doyle

Ever since 1945, the defining alliance in global politics has been the US-Western European one. This alliance prevailed during the Cold War and shaped the international world order and the post-World War II institutions that frame it. It lay at the heart of the drive to promote the liberal democratic order. Rifts opened up not least over Suez in 1956 and Iraq in 2003, but when both sides of the Atlantic acted in concert, it proved a formidable partnership.

This paper will examine how these tensions have manifested themselves in the Middle East and to assess two questions: What chance there is of major US-European cooperation in this theater going forward? And are there any significant issues on which all parties agree?

Overall relationship

Serious questions must now be raised as to whether the Western alliance is unraveling fast. It is hard to recall when the US administration and leading European powers were more out of kilter on major international issues ranging from climate change to Iran. The EU has decided not to include the US on a list of countries to receive an exemption from the EU’s coronavirus travel ban, while China has made the cut.

President Trump of the United States ran on an ”America First” ticket in the 2016 elections.  He was crystal clear. He was an isolationist and not an evangelist for free trade. Trump was an overt climate change skeptic. He had little trust in multilateral institutions like the UN, NATO, or the EU.  He chastises European states for not contributing their fair share of NATO’s budget, demanding that Germany raise its defense expenditure to 2 percent of GDP on. He likes to claim that the EU was set up for the sole purpose of taking advantage of the US. For this reason, he favored Britain’s exit from the EU. He also did not want to have US forces stuck in protracted wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, a view many Americans share. He hated the Iran nuclear deal and was keen to rip it up. Trump also promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and duly delivered.

Across the Atlantic, EU states have watched with barely disguised alarm. The consensus of EU states may not have been quite as clear as Trump but, then again, with 28 countries back in 2016, that would be an improbability. Broadly, however, the EU is internationalist and craves free trade agreements. The EU sees tackling climate change as a huge priority. All EU states backed the Iran nuclear deal.  None recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Perhaps the only item of agreement with Trump was on costly wars in the Middle East. Many EU states have little record of engagement in such conflicts. Those that have, such as Britain and France, have exhausted resources but, more significantly, public support for military interventions.

A look at President Trump’s twitter feed would suggest opportunities for cooperation have been minimal to non-existent.  He often claims that “The European Union treats us, I would say, worse than China, they’re just smaller.” 1

Yet this hides the true nature of the Trans-Atlantic partnerships. US-EU and US-UK relations are strong enough to weather the Trump storm in many files. Beneath the headlines, political, economic, and security cooperation continues to function.

Image showing Conflict and convergence in US and EU interests in the Middle East

President Trump’s arguments have some merit on security matters. Does the European Union pull its weight on the world stage? Trump has slammed countries like Germany for not contributing their fair share of contributions to NATO’s budget, but he was not the first, just the most vociferous. Trump wants other powers to do the heavy lifting and not expect the US to be the world’s policeman. On the other hand, his decision to withdraw 9,500 US troops deployed in Germany will not ease tensions, especially in eastern Europe and the Baltic states, who are apprehensive about Russian intentions. Trump is furious that Germany, in his view, has become dependent and, therefore, beholden to Russia because of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline.

EU states also do not look to have a fall out with any US President. Each state wants a positive relationship. Many European leaders tread very carefully on Trump’s issue, given the latter’s record of hating criticism.

Israel-Palestine

The European powers are typically anxious that the US at least tries to broker a form of a peace process. This is no longer the case with the Trump plan, the so-called ”Deal of the Century”. In public, most European leaders welcomed the proposal to appease the President but, in reality, have declared many of its core aspects, including Israel annexation of territory, to be illegal.

The distance on the Israel-Palestine file is broadening, albeit with divides within both camps.  In the US, support for Israel is being questioned, not least within the progressive wing of the Democrat party. This promises to put significant pressure on Joe Biden should he become President next January. The question of support for Israel is no longer a bipartisan issue. In the EU, western European states have taken a far tougher position on Israeli annexation than some in the east and southeast. Hungary, Poland the Czech Republic are leading those who refrain from criticism of Israel. But overall, the EU has retained its historic declaratory positions rooted in international law and a consensus that existed before the Trump administration. The EU refused to join the US in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or moving embassies; neither did it recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Iran

Iran poses perhaps the greatest challenge to the EU-US relationship. When President Trump exited the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), the EU powers were strongly opposed. By pulling out and imposing extremely punitive sanctions as part of a maximum pressure policy, the US made it impossible for major EU companies to trade with Iran – because they were forced to do business with the world’s largest economy and that of Iran, it was simply not a choice.

A fresh dispute centers on the future of the arms embargo on Iran, which is due to end in October as part of the 2015 JCPOA. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was clear, “Iran will hold a sword of Damocles over the economic stability of the Middle East, endangering nations like Russia and China that rely on stable energy prices.”2  The US argues that any arms sold to Iran would probably land up in the arms of groups like Hezbollah. The European powers are caught in a bind. None of them wish to see Iran purchasing arms, but also, they do not want this factor to terminate the agreement perhaps weeks before Joe Biden could win the elections in November and take the US back into the JCPOA or a revised agreement.

Syria

On several key files, the Trump administration appears at best semi-engaged. This includes Syria, often to European frustration. The Europeans need a strong US partner otherwise, it restricts their options. They find it difficult to handle the current White House’s erratic decision making and lack of full-blooded consultation.

The administration has no discernible Syria policy, seeing the problem merely as a subset of its policy on Iran, ISIS, and Turkey. President Trump wanted to pull US forces from Syria and was restrained through his generals. Trump was also keen to portray ISIS as having been defeated, a dangerous attitude given the evidence of the group’s proven ability to perpetrate attacks. According to research by BBC Monitoring, between October 2017 and May 2020, ISIS claimed 7867 attacks worldwide, with 40 percent in Iraq.3

On the question of the Assad regime’s future, Trump has said little and made no attempt to harness US diplomatic might to find a political solution. He never attempted to thwart President Putin’s ambitions for Russia to be the key actor in Syria, his only concern being that the leading external player should not be Iran.  Putin has therefore been given a free ride in terms of military action in most of Syria; hence by early 2018, Putin was boasting that Russia had tested more than two hundred new weapons in the country.4

The EU barely has even a policy approach to Syria, let alone a strategy. It opposes the regime, but beyond that has minimal ability to influence matters on the ground, where what counts is military might on the spot. Europe watches from the side-lines once again.

The US, Britain, and France took joint action against Syria in April 2018 following the Douma chemical weapons attack. Yet if anything, this was an admission of acute weakness. The missile strikes hardly threatened the regime and were at the lower end of the military options’ risk spectrum. Israeli strikes in Syria staged mostly against Iranian related targets, have been far more damaging. If there is one thing that European states and Trump agree on, it is a complete lack of desire to get involved in yet more Middle East wars.

A new area of irritation has also opened up over new US sanctions on Syria under the so-called Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. While the EU sanctions the Syrian regime itself, the US has effectively through these additional sanctions rendered any chance of an EU-funded reconstruction program almost impossible.5 Many European leaders wanted to use reconstruction as part of a carrot and stick approach, to provide such aid in return for meaningful political reforms on behalf of the regime. They are aware that Russia and Iran cannot afford to bail Syria out. The Trump administration has removed this option when some argue the Syrian regime might have no choice but to enter into a deal with the EU.

The counter-argument is that the Syrian regime will never do this and has demonstrated zero interest in its own population’s well-being. The US administration has no desire to spend funds on reconstruction. As President Trump reportedly said about spending $200 million on reconstruction in Syria: “I want to build up our country, not others.” 6

Turkey

The US’s approach to Turkey is hard to pin down and apparently depends largely on the dynamics between Presidents Erdogan and Trump. Last October, President Trump green-lighted the Turkish invasion of north-east Syria in a phone call with Erdogan. Within days Trump was warning President Erdogan not to go too far and was imposing sanctions on him threatening to destroy the Turkish economy. EU powers and many American politicians were also quietly furious with Trump’s decision to pull out US troops from Syria, seeing this as a betrayal of the Kurdish dominated forces that had fought against ISIS. They had essentially been the foot soldiers against these extremists. The EU might have been more critical of Turkey had Erdogan not successfully blackmailed the EU on the issue of refugees, threatening to turn on the taps of refugees leaving Turkey should the EU not cough up enough millions. Given that Erdogan’s agenda conflicts with American and European interests, not least over the activities of Kurdish groups and his flirting with Russia, how to handle Turkey will remain one of the trickiest challenges for all parties.

Conclusion

Both the US and the EU have challenging domestic political environments characterized by extreme polarization. This affects their conduct and interests in international affairs, with significant political movements pushing for isolationist and anti-immigrant policies. It also means elected leaders will struggle to build a strong enough consensus for a bold foreign policy approach.

The EU is looking to the US to be a leading actor on the world stage once again that works with its allies and guarantees European security. It needs US heft in the Middle East, in particular, to block the ambitions of Putin’s Russia, but also rein in Iran and Turkey without risking a major regional war.

For the Middle East, a US-EU partnership working constructively in lockstep to resolve the region’s conflicts and underlying problems would be a significant step to addressing some of the region’s ills. If Trump were to win a second term in November, Transatlantic cooperation would remain a mirage, continuing with a narrower sense of what the joint self-interest is. A Biden Presidency leaves open options for partnership, but with no clear direction as to where this might lead. On Iran, Biden could opt to rejoin the JCPOA, though this would require a return to talks perhaps for a revised agreement in an atmosphere much soured over recent years. Biden remains friendly with Israel, but more vulnerable to pressure from the progressive wing of the Democrat party who are keen to address Palestinian rights. The Europeans might crave a Biden Middle East peace initiative, though this raises the question of whether or not Biden is willing to expend political capital. The Syrian file may remain the trickiest for all given that ever since 2011, neither the US nor the EU have concocted anything close to a viable strategy as opposed to short-term expedient positions.

Much will depend on how all parties handle the competing ambitions of Russia, Turkey, and Iran. As yet, these three powers have no reason to believe that they cannot expand their interests in the region at the expense of the western powers.

The increasing distance between the US and the EU over the Middle East will, in all likelihood, not diminish should Joe Biden become President. The atmospherics may improve, but the approaches could remain far apart. European powers have to be involved in the Middle East. It is part of their neighborhood. They are dependent on oil and gas supplies, among other things, and have trade and environmental concerns and primary security interests. On the other hand, the US has drifted away from the region, something common to both the Obama and Trump administrations. Many Americans question why the US should devote so many resources to an area of the world thousands of miles away. For the moment, the isolationists still hold the upper hand over the interventionists.


References:

1- “Trump says EU treats U.S. worse than China does on trade,” Reuters, May 17, 2019

 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-eu/trump-says-eu-treats-u-s-worse-than-china-does-on-trade-idUSKCN1SN2FJ

2-  “US urges allies to maintain UN embargo on arms sales to Iran,” The Guardian, June 30, 2020

 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/30/us-urges-allies-to-maintain-un-embargo-on-arms-sales-to-iran

3- Tweet from @BBCMonitoring, June 29, 2020

 https://twitter.com/BBCMonitoring/status/1277589703018110976?s=20

4- Marc Bennetts, “Putin: Syria War Is Priceless for Testing Our New Weapons,” Times (London), June 8, 2018, www.thetimes.co.uk/article/putin-syria-war-is-priceless-for-testing-our-new-weapons-qkz3qsdqw

5- https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/06/turkey-united-states-bolton-book-reveals-erdogan-trump-ties.html

6- John Bolton, The Room Where it Happened (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020) p.40.

Britain EU European_union Iran Middle East NATO Palestine Trump USA

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