The Obama era, it is often falsely suggested, was one of “no corruption” and a “strong multilateralism” on the international stage where Atlanticism held sway and challenges to U.S.-led western liberal democratic order were easily neutralized. Then, we were assured, the policymakers at the U.S. State Department and their like-minded allies at Langley had everything under control.
This is the impression left by a horribly biased media on both sides of the pond, still raging at the audacity of hoi polloi who dared not only to elect the unpalatable Donald Trump as president of the United States, but who also saw to it that Brexit be seen through to the end.
Upon closer inspection, one will note that Afghanistan continues to be a raging quagmire, with the Taliban threatening what little is left of the U.S.-backed Afghan National Army. Presidential candidate Joe Biden promised everyone way back in 2012 that U.S. forces were on the way out within months. This is America’s longest historical conflict, soon to break the two-decade milestone should current peace talks collapse (a very safe bet).
Libya, where the United States “led from behind” (as per President Obama), continues to be ravaged by civil war between various tribal and jihadi factions. Muammar Gaddafi’s removal was sold as an easy “pick off” but Obama’s legacy (and to be fair, the legacies of the UK’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy) is one of modern-day slave markets, a destroyed economy, an annihilated society, and a continuing migrant crisis for which Europe continues to foot the bill.
And as they are paying the price for Obama’s Libya policy, Europe is still paying the price for his Russia policy. Wrenching Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit has been presented as a victory for liberal democracy and the Western-led global order against an “authoritarian” and “revanchist” Russia.
What could have been the biggest strategic victory of Obama’s foreign policy instead descended into a stalemate whereby a horribly corrupt rump Ukraine has exposed all sorts of shady practices and practitioners, ranging from Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort to the clearly corrupt Hunter Biden. The steadily increasing sanctions regime leveled at Moscow and key Russians by the United States had the added effect of harming European business interests, leading to resentment among both German and French manufacturers. Ukraine’s conflict continues to fester as an open wound, with resolution still far off in the distance.
The Syrian Debacle
Nowhere has Obama’s legacy had a more direct impact on Europe than in Syria. In 2009 then-President Obama delivered his famous “Cairo Speech” at al-Azhar University in Egypt’s capital. Mirroring the baseless optimism of the neo-conservatives who were convinced that Iraq would blossom as a liberal democracy thanks to U.S. bombing and occupation, Obama exhorted Arabs to join modernity and embrace a similar kind of liberal conceit.
Shortly thereafter, Tunisia began to see protests against its government and these protests then spread like wildfire across much of the Arab world. These demonstrations were christened “The Arab Spring” and were packaged to easily-distracted westerners as a blooming of democratic sentiment in a part of the world where authoritarian strongmen held sway. Governments began to collapse and leaders toppled, with Egypt’s strongman Hosni Mubarak (a longtime ally of the United States) the most notable example.
Not all was as it seemed. The protesters were more often than not Islamist radicals instead of pro-western liberals, insisting on Shari’a, not universal human rights. Egypt’s government was toppled by the same radicals who propelled the Muslim Brotherhood into power in what could only be described as a slap in the face for Obama’s clarion call to embrace western liberalism. Egypt remained firmly within the U.S. camp and fallout was limited as the Egyptian Army eventually overthrew the Islamist regime, reasserting the status quo ante. Syria, however, was altogether a different matter.
A Soviet client state during the Cold War, Syria’s security took a hit with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the increased focus from U.S. neoconservatives on realigning the Middle East. A panicked Syria offered (and delivered) assistance to the CIA in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, helping them uncover al-Qaida agents throughout the region. The Syrians saw this as a sensible investment strategy to offset neoconservative designs on their country.
The grace period that cooperation offered Syria ended with the Arab Spring as protests spread throughout that country as well. Although theirs was an authoritarian regime secular in appearance, there was internal opposition from various constituencies ranging from tribal opponents of the ruling Assad family, to Sunni Islamists, to independence-seeking Kurds.
The refusal of the government to hand over power beyond some key proposed reforms saw the country descend into civil war. The United States, Britain, and France immediately began to call for Bashar al-Assad to step down, and joined up with various Gulf states and with Turkey to arm and finance opposition to the government.
Quickly a pattern emerged where pro-western Syrian rebels were crowed out by various competing jihadist factions who were more ruthless and more experienced in the ways of violent conflict. Al-Qaida set up shop through its local franchise al-Nusra. A few years later would see the appearance of ISIS on Syrian soil thanks to its porous border with unstable Iraq. The neoconservative and Obama era vision of a multiparty democracy planting roots in Damascus and upending the Middle East’s configuration turned to ashes as Salafist militants of various stripes engaged in bloody combat with forces loyal to the Syrian government and with independence-minded Kurds in the north of the country.
Turkey, Red Lines, and Refugees
Knee-deep in this protracted conflict was key NATO ally Turkey. Led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey actively pursued a Neo-Ottoman foreign policy in which the removal of the Assad Regime and its replacement with a Turkish client played a key role. Turkey quickly provided arms and finance to various rebel factions fighting the government and turned itself into a logistics hub for Islamists as well. Key Turkish figures close to Erdoğan profited from the trade of contraband oil under the control of ISIS in Turkey’s east as it fed Gulf State-purchased weaponry to anti-Assad militants near its border with Syria.
Turkey played a dangerous game as it exposed itself to all sorts of blowback stemming from its support of Islamist radicals (such as al-Qaida’s HTS) leading to terror attacks on its own soil. Even more dangerous to Turkish security interests was the rise of Kurdish armed groups seeking autonomy and/or independence along Turkey’s border where the vast majority of Syria’s Kurds reside. An unwanted but easily foreseen consequence of Turkey’s purposeful destabilization of Syria, the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish entity presented the Turks with an existential threat.
Meanwhile, Obama flinched after declaring a “red line” as to what kind of behavior the United States would tolerate from the Syrian government. After being called on his bluff, Obama refused to act (in hindsight a very sensible move) and instead delegated authority to competing U.S. government factions, namely the CIA and the Department of Defense. The CIA continued its decades-long policy of supporting radical Islamist groups to oust targeted regimes. On the other hand, the Pentagon began to build out the capacities of the Kurdish forces. This led to the surreal situation a few years later when Pentagon-backed Kurds began an open fight with CIA-backed Islamist militants (also backed by the Turks).
The failure to finish off the Syrian government combined with the hesitancy of Obama towards open intervention allowed for the Russians to reassert themselves in their former client state. By this time the conflict was already four years old and had displaced millions of Syrians, most of whom found themselves in refugee camps in Turkey. With Obama telling his National Security staff to “not get me into a shooting war with Russia,” the net effect of the Russian entry into the conflict was a reversal of fortunes for the government which slowly, and then quickly, turned the tide against the various rebel factions seeking to seize power in Damascus. Meanwhile, Turkey continued to absorb even more refugees who were already taxing its overburdened social system.
Around the same time in 2015, Angela Merkel unwittingly strengthened and entrenched Europe’s populists, helping to push the British to support Brexit. In a gesture of horribly misplaced altruism, Merkel opened the borders of Germany to over one million migrants and refugees then located in Turkey. Ranging from Pakistanis to Pashtuns to Syrians, the overwhelmingly young male-dominated cohort made its way through Southern Europe towards the promised land of Germany as Merkel ignored the pleas of various European countries along their path to halt the procession.
Turkey was glad to rid itself of the burden of these migrants and refugees as they were straining the system, leading to resentment from the locals. Various European countries began to pull out of the Schengen Agreement (which allowed for free transit between EU countries), with Hungary the most notable example as it set up barbed wire along its borders to deter these very same migrants.
The political reaction to Merkel’s folly was swift and Europe’s door quickly swung closed. The EU entered into an agreement with Turkey to keep migrant flows at a minimum by way of outright bribery (or extortion from the Turks, depending on your view). Turkey would house millions of migrants and refugees within its borders in return for billions of Euros, and Europe would avoid a continuous flow of new arrivals at its door.
Escalation Opens the Floodgates
This state of affairs could only last so long however as the Syrian conflict continued to drone on. With Trump inheriting Obama’s half-hearted intervention and himself trying to disengage from the failed regime-change project, the conflict took a new turn as the focus shifted to eliminating ISIS as a force. A combined effort from the United States, Russia, Iran, and Syria (albeit not in coordination and often at cross-purposes) saw that this goal was achieved. Yet the Turks now found themselves in a conundrum as the Kurds had secured a U.S.-backed autonomy, refugees were stuck in Turkey, and a final resolution to the conflict was nowhere in sight. The Turks broke the stalemate by pushing the Kurds from the border and cutting themselves a security zone intended to house displaced Syrians. Presented with this fait accompli the Americans chose the Turks over their easily disposable Kurdish allies. The Turks won this round.
Yet this Turkish victory did not resolve the larger issue of Syrian refugees and even more worrisome, the presence of Islamist militants along Turkey’s border in Syria’s Idlib Province where al-Qaida offshoot HTS reigned supreme. Squeezed by Russian airstrikes and Syrian government ground operations, jihadis and civilians incrementally were being pushed towards Turkey. An intractable conflict pitted Turkish-backed Islamists in Idlib Province against Russian-backed Syrian government forces with the latter having the upper hand. This came to a head recently as the Russian Air Force (although the Turks are claiming it was the Syrian Air Force) bombed a Turkish military column in Southern Idlib, killing 33 Turkish soldiers.
Turkey is in the unenviable position of already having too many refugees on its soil and worse, a fanatical jihadi province on its border that is under attack, threatening to push 3 million more civilians into Turkey alongside various destabilizing and threatening jihadi groups. Party to an agreement with the EU to keep migrants and refugees on its soil and away from Europe, Turkey felt boxed in. With the migrants and refugees, the only available leverage to use to try and stop the Russian-backed Syrian offensive in Idlib Province, Turkey’s government has ordered its police and border guards to no longer impede migrant flows towards Europe.
Many in Europe have warned that Turkey would once again open the floodgates at a critical juncture and that time has arrived. Whether this is tactical and temporary or meant to be a long term and strategic solution remains to be seen. The move, no doubt, is intended to rally Europe and the West to pressure the Russians to halt the offensive in Idlib Province. But even if that is successful it only kicks the can down the road as Syria and Russia are intent on liberating the whole of the country, meaning that Islamist radicals will have to be dealt with in one manner or another.
Ripping apart its agreement with the EU whereby it prohibits the free flow of migrants to Europe, Turkey has played its one last card and will now see what little goodwill remains towards it evaporate. Even prior to the recent Russian airstrike on Turkish forces, Greeks on the island of Lesbos were attacking their police for setting up new migrant camps, intended to facilitate the processing of migrants. This week, Greece has closed its border not only to migrants, but to anyone coming from Turkey.
The overtaxed Turkish system has created a political climate hostile to migrants and refugees on its soil and flight to Europe presents a chance for relief. Yet Europe cannot afford another wave of migrants like it received in 2015 as the political climate on the continent has changed, with xenophobia now entrenched in many national parliaments and with several governments on the verge of collapse. Compounding the issue is the specter of a coronavirus pandemic, thus creating the conditions for a perfect political storm.
Italy, already seeing quarantines and public shutdowns in Lombardy and Veneto Provinces, has a very shaky government that needs only the slightest nudge to see it toppled. Lega’s Matteo Salvini senses blood in the water, and with polls giving his party over 30 percent consistently, he will form the next government.
Germany has been rocked by the collapse of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the ruling CDU is bleeding support to the right-wing AfD, a party around which has been placed a cordon sanitaire by the mainstream parties. The AfD’s strong polling is largely a response to 2015 and they only stand to gain even greater support should this new wave of migrants breach European defenses.
Sweden’s anti-immigrant Democrats are now the highest polling party in that country. In 2015 the Swedish Government had to close its borders as it could not absorb any more migrants. Like Germany’s AfD, Sweden’s Democrats have seen a surge in support thanks to Merkel’s 2015 Folly.
France, already in open rebellion due to Macron’s proposed pension and labor reforms as well as tax hikes on gas that spurred the Gilet Jaunes, can ill-afford the destabilization of a new migrant wave that would give the strongest opportunity yet to usher in a Le Pen-led RN presidency.
A new migrant wave would also allow Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to hurl a righteous “I told you so” to the media and especially at Brussels. It would serve to buttress his approach to the migrant question and would act as an example for others to follow. This would hamper efforts from Brussels and more mainstream parties seeking to punish Hungary’s Fidesz for its perceived “rule of law” infringements.
The net effect of a new migrant wave unleashed by Turkey onto Europe would be a further erosion of the parties of the center and another swing to the populists and nationalists of the right. Europe, footing the bill for American-led adventures along its periphery, has seen its citizens punish establishment parties and figures who have acquiesced to Obama-era diktats and fait accomplis. The Obama era exacted a price on Europe for American foreign policy objectives but the Europeans have passed the bill to their increasingly-discredited mainstream elites, who, with this potential new wave of migrants entering from Turkey, would find themselves on the verge of being overthrown.
The neoconservative and liberal humanitarian interventionist desire to change the regime in Damascus has failed. Even worse in their calculation is that the fallout could very much result not just in a more regionally assertive Russia, but also a Europe dominated by nationalists and populists, wary of Obama-era adventurism.