Russian units located between Turkish forces that have invaded Syria and the Kurds there affect the geopolitical situation with their presence alone, just as the Americans did before leaving the area in a surprise move recently, Minister of Defense Jüri Luik, to conclude a visit to Iraq today, says in an interview.
Nathalie Tocci, adviser to EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, wrote in Politico how the EU would fill the vacancy left by the Americans in the Middle East. Is it a dream that will never come true?
It is a dream. The European Union lacks both the political will and the military might that would require. Perhaps the EU has finances, but it is difficult to imagine how they could be used for reconstruction in the conditions of active conflict in Syria.
Why Syria matters? Because Syria is the crisis where all countries and international organizations can show how seriously they can be taken when it comes to solving problems in the Middle East today. The EU is active in many more stable Middle Eastern countries that can use EU economic aid or cooperate with the Union.
But right now, the Middle East is governed by a power the EU lacks and was never meant to have. Therefore, we can describe Tocci's position as academic.
It seems the vacancy left by the US could instead be filled by Russia that has positioned its units in between Turkish and Syrian forces in Kurdish territories.
Russia's role in the Middle East has been growing for some time. Their strategy is clear – to wield influence far beyond their borders for which they have military bases, also in Syria.
The Russians have filled every vacancy left by the Americans to their tactical advantage. Now, they have reached northern Syria to support Syrian forces and indirectly also Kurdish fighters.
Russia is boosting its international influence and weight?
That is what it is. And they are using the opportunities left by the West. While it is very difficult to imagine major Russian operations beyond their borders, they have positioned themselves in between the Turks and Kurds with a very modest force.
They are affecting the geopolitical situation simply by standing there. Just as the Americans did using only a small force before they left.
Could it drive cracks into the European Union's sanctions policy against Russia, introduced after the annexation of Crimea and military activity in Donbas?
The trend today is to look for new opportunities in Russia relations, and there can be no doubt that the more active and influential Russia can be in the Middle East and elsewhere, the greater the likelihood of sanctions being revisited at some point.
What would that influence really mean? If Russia acted contrary to Western interests and fueled conflict…
On the contrary. It is in the interests of Europe for the Turkish operation not to add to tensions in Syria and Iraq…
… to avoid more refugees and other consequences hitting Europe. Russia will diffuse the situation or at least mitigate it and become more valuable as a partner.
The West has been looking for a negotiating partner in Syria for a long time, and for a long time there hasn't been one. Of course, there were no negotiations with ISIS. It will definitely be easier for the West to negotiate with a stable nation state that uses conventional diplomatic channels.
On the other hand, it is clear these talks would not prioritize Western interests because the West does not have "boots on the ground" in Syria, meaning it also doesn't have much say.
Will all of this affect Iraq and how?
After meeting with the Iraqi premier and defense minister, it was clear their main concern has to do with prisoner and refugee camps in Syria that have a lot of ISIS members. These are huge camps that are not prisons in the classical sense but are filled with thousands of people being guarded by the Kurds.
And now, courtesy of this war [Turkey started], there is a real chance these camps will empty and ISIS men and women will be at large again. Many are Iraqi citizens and would likely try and return to the country. What the Iraqi government needs like a hole in the head is a new wave of terrorists. They have enough problems. That is why – literally as we speak – Iraq is deploying its troops on its western border to secure it and check everyone who tries to cross.
Allow me to recall how ISIS nearly reached Bagdad suburbs. This is not an abstract threat of a few bombs here or there. The Iraqi administration sees it as a very serious problem.
How optimistic are you in terms of Iraq's future?
It is very difficult to say as there are many factors in play.
After the war, when the Iraqi government returned to take over its constitutional role from USA and international occupation forces, expectations were great. Looking at the political reality in Iraq, they had free elections and there are several democratic elements. At the same time, they also have major religious conflicts, riots, terrorism.
The biggest concern of the Iraqi government and one I share is that there will be attempts by various neighbors – some of whom are very strong – to use the country as a battleground for settling tensions and picking fights. That is the worst thing.
With Iran on one side and…?
We can list a number of adversaries and sources of tensions.
There is the classic Sunni-Shia conflict. You have Iran versus Saudi Arabia. Also, the Americans, still very active in Iraq, and Iran. The latter tension has been building in recent months.
It is clear that Iraq is worried and fearful, also because of its religious makeup.
And then there is the conflict between the Iraqi government's desire to build up a stable country and millions of Iraqis' dissatisfaction with their daily lives.
Just so. Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. At the same time, the country has a lot of national wealth, especially natural resources, and we can see the standard of living neighboring oil countries can offer their people. In that sense, it is of great significance whether the Iraqi government can build a society than can cater to the masses or whether, as we have seen in recent weeks, the economic situation will spark major tensions and unrest in society.
Editor: Marcus Turovski